Hospital emergency rooms seeing increase in flu-related visits

At Brigham & Women's Hospital, they are seeing the future of the flu season, and they don't like it.

LOWELL — As hospitals and doctor’s offices deal with a huge spike in flu cases this season, Lowell General Hospital is urging people not to come to the emergency room if they do not have a life-threatening illness.

In a Facebook post Tuesday, the hospital encouraged people instead to call their primary care providers or head to urgent care clinics, as its emergency departments and inpatient units at both campuses were seeing high volumes of patients.

“It definitely was an overload as far as trying to find the space for people,” said Dr. David Sidebottom, Director of Infectious Diseases at the hospital. “Certainly, people need to be evaluated, but we’re trying to encourage people to use a less intensive environment that might be necessary such as an urgent care center.”

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Sidebottom told Boston 25 News Wednesday the emergency room at the main campus was at capacity with its 50 beds full and another 50 hallway gurneys in use, as more people waited in line to be seen. The Saints campus experienced similar numbers.

“We swab and screen for influenza in the outpatient setting, (and) it has dramatically increased in the last two or three weeks,” Sidebottom said. “And now, probably about 25 or 30 percent of our screening tests are positive for flu.”

Patients who have underlying conditions and are experiencing flu-like symptoms are encouraged to go to the emergency room.

“If you have significant cardiac disease, heart disease, lung disease already, those people probably should be evaluated in the emergency setting,” Sidebottom said, “but other people probably don’t need to.”

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate this could be one of the worst flu seasons in decades.

The season started early and at least 2,900 people nationwide have died from the flu, according to numbers released by the CDC Friday.

“Every single year we see the mortality statistics,” Sidebottom said. “Roughly 50,000 people every year die of complications of influenza, which is actually more than the number of people that die every year from car accidents now.”

Sidebottom says it’s not too late to get the flu vaccine, which covers the four strains that are occurring most frequently – two types of strain A and two types of B.

“The vaccine might take two weeks, 10 days to have some effect,” Sidebottom said. “And even if it isn’t fully effective in prevention, it will moderate the disease and make the disease less severe.”

Meanwhile, Sidebottom urges everyone to take precautions to avoid both getting sick and spreading the illness.

“Do the usual things that you should do. Wash your hands, try to do appropriate cough etiquette to try to prevent spreading viruses to people,” Sidebottom said. “Staying well hydrated, getting enough sleep, that sort of thing is always important as well.”

Influenza activity has increased substantially in the past two weeks with cases from this week tracking to be higher than those from last week. Unusually influenza B activity is equal to or greater than influenza A activity at this point early in the flu season. For both influenza A and B, getting vaccinated for influenza is the best way to reduce your risk of getting the flu, along with commonsense covering of coughs and regular hand washing or use of hand sanitizers.
Massachusetts General Hospital