By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – Doctors say it may be four to six weeks before the end of flu season in Maryland, which health officials say has now reached all parts of the state.
“The epidemic peaks at some point (each year), and I don’t think we’ve started down yet,” said Jeff Roche, acting state epidemiologist for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Emergency services in the Baltimore area “fully expect another instance of high volume before the season is over,” said John Donohue, of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.
While hospitals around the state say their emergency rooms are significantly less crowded than they were a week ago, they are still said to be unusually busy and officials are trying to get the word out to flu sufferers that they should go to their family doctor first.
“The first line of defense is to have a good relationship with their doctor,” said Michael Zimring, who practices general medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the predominant influenza virus circulating this year is the influenza A/Sydney virus, which is same as the two previous years and the one used in this year’s influenza vaccine.
The CDC reports that every year 10 to 20 percent of the U.S. population develops the flu, leading to about 20,000 deaths and more than 110,000 hospitalizations nationwide.
This year’s vaccine appears to be working well against the flu, but other respiratory viruses with flu-like symptoms are also circulating right now, Roche said. The flu this year is also being accompanied by a gastrointestinal illness that is making some patients feel worse, he said.
Patients flocked to hospital emergency departments during the first week of January complaining of fevers, severe headaches, body aches, fatigue, persistent coughing, sore throats and runny noses.
Zimring said he has seen cases of bronchitis and sinusitis along with influenza. He also had a couple of patients with significant complications, including dehydration and pneumonia.
The wave of patients that at times crowded waiting rooms, occupied stretchers in hallways and spilled over into adjacent hospital departments eased last week, but most hospitals continue to see a steady flow of flu-like symptoms.
“We are still treating a disproportionately large number of upper respiratory conditions,” said Roger A. Follebout Jr., a spokesman for Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury. He said his emergency room is still “extremely full,” with about 20 beds out of 300 in the acute inpatient unit available Friday.
Johns Hopkins Hospital is seeing 10 to 20 more patients per day than normal due to people complaining of flu-like symptoms, said James Scheulen, administrator of the emergency department.
Scheulen said the peak seemed to hit earlier than usual this year, with his emergency department seeing 50 to 70 more patients per day than usual for the two weeks after Christmas. Now he says the spread of flu and similar illnesses is more of a “constant low hum.”
Donohue said hospital workers were encouraged to ease the burden by discharging flu patients when possible. He also cited a growing awareness among the public that they should call their family physician first.
Officials at Washington County Hospital have also encouraged people to see their physician and use over-the-counter medications before coming to the emergency room. But if someone cannot stand the symptoms, gets worse or has shortness of breath or chest pains, they should come in, said Emergency Department Nurse Manager Bonnie Forsh.
Forsh said patients have been very understanding about the long wait and the need to see critical patients first at the Hagerstown hospital.
State and federal health officials say it is not too late to get vaccinated. It takes one to two weeks for antibodies to develop, so people who get vaccinated now could still be protected for the last few weeks of flu season.
The vaccine is particularly recommended for the elderly and people with chronic illnesses. Interested individuals should ask their doctors or call their local health department to find out if vaccines are available.
Four prescription drugs have been approved for treating influenza. The CDC says the drugs can shorten the illness if started within 48 hours of the first symptoms, but they do carry some side effects. For most people, the best medicine may be old-fashioned bed rest and over-the-counter medications
The flu can be devastating, said Zimring, particularly because it lasts for about a week and keeps people home from work.
“I can understand why people get scared,” said Zimring. But the best thing they can do is check with their doctor and then “be well hydrated, be well nourished and get lots of rest.”