January 11, 2018

Rapid increase in seasonal flu cases taxes area hospitals

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With Birmingham-area hospital emergency medicine resources stretched to capacity, physicians urge those with flu symptoms to call primary care providers or utilize UAB eMedicine.

Over the past week, daily inpatient capacity challenges in UAB Hospital, UAB Highlands, and hospitals throughout the city of Birmingham and state of Alabama have dramatically increased due to an elevated volume in seasonal flu cases. UAB Hospital Emergency, Critical Care, Ambulatory and Prime Care services have experienced a 50 percent increase in seasonal influenza cases in the past 72 hours alone. These events led Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey to issue a State of Emergency this evening.  

The Jefferson County Department of Health and the Birmingham-area medical community urge residents with minor flu or flu-like symptoms to refrain from going to hospital emergency departments to avoid continued overstressing of the community’s resources. Mild cases of the flu usually do not require a hospital visit. If you are experiencing flu symptoms — fever or feeling feverish or experiencing chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue — call your primary health care provider or utilize UAB eMedicine to engage with a caregiver who can assess your condition and needs without an emergency room or clinic visit.Patients who choose to visit an emergency department or outpatient clinic should be aware of long wait times. All local hospitals are taking necessary steps to ensure that patients receive appropriate care. This issue is occurring nationwide, not just in the Birmingham area. The situation is expected to continue for several days.

As part of the effort to stop the current influenza outbreak, UAB Hospital officials recommend that individuals refrain from visiting family and friends who are in the hospital. This is especially important for young children, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems.

Individuals with even mild flu-like symptoms are also encouraged to stay home from work, school, church or other gatherings.

Bernard Camins, M.D., associate professor in UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, says flu prevention should be the focus for the public.

The Jefferson County Department of Health and the Birmingham-area medical community urge residents with minor flu or flu-like symptoms to refrain from going to hospital emergency departments to avoid continued overstressing of the community’s resources. 

“The most important thing for people who are already sick or for those to whom the flu may be life-threatening is prevention — avoiding anyone who is sick, if it is possible,” Camins said. “This includes avoiding public areas where they could get infected, staying away from family or friends who may be sick, and not allowing sick individuals into their homes. They also need to practice proactive and frequent hand hygiene. Prevention is the key.”

Representatives from multiple disciplines across UAB Hospital and the Health System trained for an influenza outbreak along with the Jefferson County Health Care Coalition this past August and October. Both of those exercises included many of the components UAB is using to manage this event.

What is the flu?

Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The flu is different from a cold. The flu usually comes on suddenly. 

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults

People who are at high risk for developing flu-related complications are:

  • Young children (younger than 5, but especially younger than 2 years old)
  • Adults 65 years of age and older
  • Pregnant women
  • People with medical conditions such as a weakened immune system, asthma, heart disease and diabetes
  • Residents of long-term-care facilities

There are ways you can protect yourself, family and friends:

  • Get the flu vaccine if you are 6 months of age and older
  • Cover your cough and sneeze
  • Wash your hands
  • Clean living and working areas
  • Avoid crowds
  • Stay home from work or school if you are sick
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
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