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Nasty start to flu season puts crunch on hospitals

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 12:12 a.m.
Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest is setting up an ancillary emergency room to handle the surge in flu cases in Allentown, PA on Tuesday, January 8, 2012. Michael Kubel I The Morning Call
Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest is setting up an ancillary emergency room to handle the surge in flu cases in Allentown, PA on Tuesday, January 8, 2012. Michael Kubel I The Morning Call
Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest is setting up an ancillary emergency room to handle the surge in flu cases in Allentown, PA on Tuesday, January 8, 2012. Michael Kubel I The Morning Call

Three weeks into an influenza surge, Monongahela Valley Hospital is running near capacity and might fill its 210 beds.

Doctors there and at other Western Pennsylvania hospitals aren't ready to set up outdoor tents to cope with an onslaught of flu patients, as they have at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Lehigh County and elsewhere.

But state health data show the early rush of cases is inundating hospitals and some nursing homes with volumes not reported in years. The state reported 22 flu fatalities this season, 18 in the week that ended on Saturday. Most were elderly.

“We've noticed a dramatic increase in just the past seven days,” said Holly Lorenz, chief nurse executive for UPMC. She called hospital occupancy rates high, although UPMC did not release numbers.

At Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville, emergency room visits are up about 17 percent since November, driven largely by flu. Nearly 80 flu patients were admitted at three Excela Health hospitals in Westmoreland County, more than triple the flu volume they recorded last season.

Mon Valley is prepared to transfer patients to other hospitals as it monitors worse-than-average flu symptoms, said Dr. Brenda Walther, director of emergency medicine.

Excela has the tent option for a worst-case scenario, said Kate Rosatti, director of medical outcomes.

“This isn't any different volume-wise from what we had encountered before,” Rosatti said. Excela hospitals reported 354 total flu cases since Dec. 1.

Laboratory-confirmed flu cases since Oct. 2 reached 11,327 statewide, a fraction of the total case volume in Pennsylvania, according to state health officials. About 7 percent to 9 percent of lab-confirmed cases lead to hospitalization.

As of Saturday, 971 people were hospitalized in Pennsylvania with the flu, up from 265 during the 2011-12 flu season. Doctors recorded 1,586 hospitalizations in 2010-11 and 1,402 in 2009-10, the season of the heavily publicized H1N1 outbreak of swine flu.

“We don't have the swell we had to that extent (in 2009-10), but we have a much bigger year than we had last year,” said Dr. Marian Michaels, a physician in pediatric infectious diseases at Children's Hospital.

She said two of three new patients in the Children's Hospital intensive care unit on Tuesday were battling the flu.

Like other doctors, Michaels urged people — including children — to get a flu shot, recommended for most ages by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's not too late to get inoculated for the season, which could run eight more weeks in Western Pennsylvania, physicians said.

The West Penn Allegheny Health System is busy but hasn't needed to transfer patients, spokeswoman Stephanie Waite said. It did not release occupancy rates.

State health officials said 72 flu outbreaks hit long-term-care facilities, namely nursing homes. That's up from 21 logged last season but shy of the 179 in 2011-12.

“We're being very aggressive about universal precautions” such as hand-washing, said Mark Fox, spokesman for O'Hara-based Grane Healthcare. The company operates 12 skilled-nursing and four personal-care facilities in Western Pennsylvania.

A few flu cases hit its properties this season, but Grane had no serious outbreaks and no fatalities, Fox said.

The Kane Regional Centers in Allegheny County have yet to confirm a flu case, said Executive Director Dennis Biondo.

“We do have measures in place. We've stepped up our monitoring,” including flu tests for anyone with symptoms, he said.

Should the Kanes develop an outbreak, Biondo said, health officials might require that certain residents stay within their units. Visitors in affected areas would wear gloves.

“We're keeping our fingers crossed,” Biondo said. “We've been very fortunate it hasn't hit our facilities yet.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676.

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