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Nursing homes hit hard by 'nightmare' flu season

| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 12:39 a.m.

What may be one of the worst flu seasons to hit Western Pennsylvania in a decade is producing “nightmare” scenarios in nursing homes and leading church officials to distribute hand sanitizer and urge sick parishioners to stay home.

More than 120 long-term-care facilities statewide have confirmed flu cases since the season began in October. About 20 are in Allegheny County, where health officials often urge affected homes to limit visitor access, isolate flu patients or take other precautions, said Dr. Ronald Voorhees, acting county health director.

“It is really a nightmare. We are seeing widespread outbreaks within facilities,” said Dr. David A. Nace, chief of medical affairs for UPMC Senior Communities. He called it “probably the worst” flu season in nursing homes in about a decade.

Pennsylvania counted 40 flu-related deaths as of Saturday, 18 of them last week. Most fatalities involved the elderly.

Nearly all senior-care facilities in the UPMC network have logged flu or other respiratory cases this season, Nace said.

He said many nursing homes are paring visitation and deferring or limiting new admissions for days at a time, hoping to protect patients.

Some have temporarily paused all new admissions, Nace said, though it wasn't clear how many have taken that step.

“The main thing is for the protection of the person coming in” for housing, Nace said. “You want to protect the patient at all costs. That's the primary reason.”

Churches have adjusted their practices in light of the widening influenza season. Many have amended services to reduce contact among parishioners, distributing liquid sanitizers and suspending hand-to-hand salutations.

“A lot of United Methodist churches are making public announcements to their churches, encouraging (members) to stay home if they're sick,” said Greg Cox, director of connectional ministries for the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Nace said Western Pennsylvania appears to be hitting the peak of flu season, which accelerated earlier than usual in the first days of December.

Laboratory tests confirmed 5,069 new flu cases statewide last week, up from 4,256 cases the week before, according to state health data released Tuesday.

Health officials caution the confirmed cases represent only a fraction of the flu outbreak, which can infect as much as 10 percent of the population each year.

“Our cases continue to rise. We haven't reached the peak yet,” said Dr. Ram Nambiar, acting director at the state epidemiology bureau.

But Voorhees said the surge may be slowing in Allegheny County, which leads Pennsylvania with 1,249 of 16,511 confirmed flu cases statewide since October.

Just less than 5 percent of emergency-department visits this week in the county involve flulike symptoms, down from 6 percent about 10 days ago, he said.

“I think we're probably past the peak but by no means over it,” he said. “It takes a month to build up (to a peak). It'll take a month to go back down. It's still not gone.”

Voorhees called this the most robust flu season in several years. And “it would be better if people had gotten their flu shot last fall.

“But if they haven't, it's still not too late to get one now,” Voorhees said. The flu vaccination developed for 2012-13 is about 62 percent effective, which means those who get the shot are 62 percent less likely to see a doctor for flu treatments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

At West Penn Allegheny Health System, which includes Allegheny General, West Penn and Forbes Regional hospitals, flu cases appear on par with last week, said Dr. Thomas Campbell, the emergency medicine chairman. “It's not gotten any worse.”

Nace said the trend lines should be more clear in a week or so.

“We're either at the top of the hump or just slightly beyond it,” he said.

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

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