LIMA — While the East Coast deals with hospital overcrowding, quarantines and a flu-like epidemic, Allen County officials say it’s not likely the outbreak will get that serious here.
“Our hospitals are not being overrun at this point,” said Becky Dershem, Allen County Health Department's director of nursing. “It does seem to be spotty. There are places in Ohio that are having a higher admission rates. In our immediate area, it seems like we have some capacity.”
But that doesn’t mean this flu season has been easy by any means. Flu season hit harder and earlier, local health officials reported.
“We’re seeing a lot more patients this year than last. Some are getting admitted, others just are seen with influenza-like-illness (ILI) symptoms,” said William Tucker, medical director of St. Rita’s Medical Center's emergency department.
Dershem said from October until the beginning of January, there were 89 diagnosed cases of influenza in Allen County, not including those that displayed ILI symptoms. Last year, there were only 66 cases, she said. Statewide, she said this year there have been 1,962 cases, compared to 864 cases the year before.
“Another big thing was that normally in the summer months of June, July, August, we don’t see much flu activity,” she said. “But this year, we had cases in every month except for September.”
The Centers for Disease Control’s weekly FluView map, which tracks confirmed cases, still labeled Ohio as having widespread flu cases Tuesday. The CDC reported 36.5 percent of Americans have gotten a flu vaccine this year, compared to 36.3 percent last year. Nationally, deaths and hospitalizations are still below epidemic thresholds.
Cheryl Nagy, Lima Memorial Health System’s director of infection control and patient safety officer, said the hospital saw a large number of patients right around the holiday, but activity has since declined.
“We’re kind of in a downward pocket at the moment,” she said. “We had a little blip of ILI, but it’s really dropped for a little bit. The flu season normally starts Oct. 1 and goes until the end of March, so we’re still in it. It normally peaks in January and February and then downsizes during March. So we’re a little bit early in that.”
Nagy said Lima Memorial sees 20 to 30 patients in its emergency room daily, with 30 percent of all incoming patients displaying ILI symptoms. She said the hospital averages diagnosing one or two patients per day with influenza, typical for this time of the year.
“We do what we call our swabbing mechanism that we use to test them, and right now what we are really worried about is if the person has Influenza A,” she said Tuesday. “If they have that, then we need to make sure that we’re following them very closely.”
Dershem said Influenza A is the dominant strain of the flu that the flu shot was geared to prevent.
“It’s a pretty good match this year. It’s not perfect, and I don’t know that we ever expect perfection, and we don’t always get it even that close,” she said. “But people will always do better having the vaccine rather than not having it.”
Even though health officials don't expect an epidemic here, Tom Berger, director of emergency response with the Allen County Health Department, said he is always ready in the event of one.
He said if there were a flu outbreak, there’s a strategic national stockpile. Allen County could request those resources and plan to distribute those antiviral medications to hospitals and pharmacies.
“We also have plans for mass vaccination clinics,” he said. “So if there was a vaccine that was developed, we would prepare them and distribute them.”
He said there’s also the public education pieces to try to prevent a mass outbreak from occurring, such as making sure social distancing measures are in place.
Other places, such as New York and Boston, showed mass outbreaks of norovirus flu and whooping cough. But Dershem said while they have seen some norovirus cases, hospitals have not seen whooping cough.
“We had altogether close to 33 cases (of whooping cough) between 2010 and 2011. We saw then what an outbreak was like, and we had to contact over 3,000 people who were contacts of the disease,” she said. “But since then, the director of health for Ohio has mandated that seventh graders get a tetanus booster, which includes the pertussis.”
Dershem said officials haven’t seen any particular schools or nursing homes with a lot of cases. Jill Ackerman, superintendent of Lima City Schools, said the school system is always on high alert during flu season. She said that starting in October, every day school officials send the health department their attendance records.
“When we were doing our H1N1 training a few years back, our custodians were all trained extensively how to clean door knobs, railings and floors with a special sort of cleaning disinfectant,” she said. “The nurses go into classrooms and do training.”
Ackerman said the schools haven’t seen a big problem with attendance so far.
Dershem said though people think of the flu as being a minor issue, it can get serious quickly.
“This is just a nasty flu season. Last year and the year before, we were kind of lulled into thinking the flu wasn’t a big deal. But it really is," she said. "We tend to think of it as, ‘I’m only going to be a little achy,’ but we’ve had people on ventilators and even some die.”
Nagy said Lima Memorial monitored the number of flu cases closely every day to make sure it doesn't need to limit visitors or make changes in its plans.
“For now, we have no issues with supplies whatsoever,” she said. “We have plenty of flu vaccines, and it’s not too late to get it.”
Dershem said besides getting the vaccine, the best way to prevent illness is to stay home if you’re sick, cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands.
“We always stress to wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands,” she said. “Cough into your sleeves. Blow your nose, and don’t save the tissue for the next time.”