Pennsylvania flu hospitalizations up 62% in 2018 |

Pennsylvania flu hospitalizations up 62% in 2018

Nicole C. Brambila

The flu sent more than 8,600 Pennsylvanians to the hospital last season, a 62% increase over the previous season, a new report shows.

Released last week by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, the report found a wide variation in admissions over the past several flu seasons. The 8,647 flu-related hospitalizations were up from 5,328 in 2017, and represented a nearly three-fold increase from five years ago.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness that can cause severe illness. While most recover, flu-related complications can be life-threatening, especially for the young and old.

“We have known for many years that the extremes of the aged are most susceptible to influenza,” said Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an Allegheny Health Network doctor. “It has to do with a weakened immune system.”

Across the state, 67.5 people were hospitalized last season for every 100,000 Pennsylvanians. The season ran from fall 2017 through spring 2018.

Beaver and Allegheny counties had some of the highest hospitalization rates, with 111.4 and 97.3 cases per 100,000 respectively. Westmoreland County had a rate slightly above the state’s with 74.6 hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents, the third-highest in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

This flu season, which winds down in May, isn’t expected to be as dire. The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports nearly 80,000 flu cases through March 23, compared to the more than 122,000 Pennsylvanians sickened with influenza last season.

Older residents and children are most at risk of developing flu-related complications that result in hospitalization. Because these populations are often insured through federal safety nets paid for by taxpayers, the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council examined the Medicare and Medicaid costs associated with flu-related hospitalizations.

“We had a very bad flu year in 2017-18 in part due to the vaccine effectiveness and due to the specific strain of flu, so we are not surprised by the high rate identified in the report,” Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, told the Tribune-Review. “So far this season, we have had fewer cases, hospitalizations and deaths reported than last season.”

Robin Jennings, a spokeswoman for Excela Health in Greensburg, said Westmoreland County has a large number of seniors with conditions such as COPD, asthma and diabetes — chronic diseases that compromise an individual’s immunity and can lead to a greater number of hospital admissions, even with increased immunization rates.

Dr. Ron Leckey, systems director for emergency services at Heritage Valley Health System in Beaver and Sewickley, agreed.

“People with chronic illness tend to become more ill when they contract influenza,” Leckey said.

The report relied on hospital billing data.

Among the findings:

  • The vast majority, or 98%, of flu cases occurred between December 2017 and May 2018.
  • Roughly two in three hospitalizations were patients 65 and older.
  • Those 65 and older stayed in the hospital longer, an average of 4.6 days, compared to 3.6 days for younger flu patients.
  • Nine in 10 flu hospitalizations for patients 65 and older was paid for with Medicare for a total estimate of $34 million.
  • Medicaid paid for nearly 60% of the 604 Pennsylvania children younger than 18 hospitalized, costing an estimated $3 million.
  • Six in 10 hospitalized children were younger than 5.

As of April 2, Allegheny County had 12 flu-related deaths compared to 31 in the 2017-18 flu season. Statewide, the flu contributed to 258 deaths , according to state Health Department records.

Although the young and old are most likely to have flu-related complications with associated illnesses such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections, Pennsylvania seniors accounted for every two in three hospitalizations last flu season.

With the third-highest hospitalization rate in the state, Beaver County Commissioner Sandie Egley said she thought the county’s demographics factored into the higher rates. Seniors in Beaver County account for roughly 28% of the population.

Demographics alone, however, cannot explain the higher rates entirely. For example, about a quarter of the population in Butler County is 60 and older , but its hospitalization rate last flu season fell below the state’s with 66.8 cases per 100,000 people.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates vaccination prevented an estimated 5.3 million influenza illnesses and 85,000 flu-related hospitalizations in 2016 and 2017.

While effectiveness varies , studies show a vaccine can reduce the risk between 40% and 60% in seasons when the vaccine matches circulating strains.

Created by the general assembly in 1986, the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council is tasked with collecting and analyzing information to improve the quality and restrain the state’s health care costs.

Joe Martin, the council’s executive director, declined to comment on the report.

To read a full copy of the report, click here.

Nicole C. Brambila is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Nicole at 724-226-7704, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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