Flu Onslaught: Hospitals Forced to Make Space for Flow of Patients

Nurses Kristy Haynes, left, and Crysta Swift on Monday look over supplies inside a temporary mobile unit set up outside Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to help handle the ever-growing number of flu cases. PHOTO: DAVID GOLDMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Nurses Kristy Haynes, left, and Crysta Swift on Monday look over supplies inside a temporary mobile unit set up outside Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta to help handle the ever-growing number of flu cases. PHOTO: DAVID GOLDMAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Emergency departments across the U.S. have been slammed in recent weeks by an onslaught of flu visits, forcing hospitals to devise new spaces to house patients, to restrict visitors and to postpone elective surgeries.

Visits to hospital emergency departments, urgent care centers and other outpatient clinics by people with flu symptoms have been skyrocketing for several weeks. As of mid-January, such visits had surpassed every flu season except 2009-10, when a new flu strain caused a global pandemic. The dominant strain this season, H3N2, is particularly virulent, and the vaccine isn’t very effective against it.

NYC Health & Hospitals has seen a 40% increase in the number of people being tested for the flu compared with this time last year, according to Sean Studer, deputy chief medical officer of the group, which runs New York City’s public hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities.

To cope with greater traffic to the emergency department, hospitals in the network are opening up so-called “flex” spaces that aren’t usually needed for routine care. Patients coming to the hospital reporting flu symptoms are also placed in a separate waiting area and given masks to help prevent transmission, Dr. Studer said. If they need to be admitted, patients are given a room with a single bed when possible.

In Atlanta, the emergency department at Grady Memorial Hospital is caring for up to 25% more patients than it did at this time last year. The department usually sees around 400 patients a day, but there have been times this month when that number shot up to 502, according to Hany Atallah, Grady Memorial Hospital’s chief of emergency medicine.

“Our emergency department is full, and our inpatient services are full,” he said. “Overfull, actually.”

But people are still coming, so the hospital has set up a temporary mobile medical unit on its premises for 30 days to deal with the overflow. Fully equipped with medical supplies and 14 beds, it is essentially a second emergency room, Dr. Atallah said. Staff began seeing patients in the mobile unit on Tuesday.

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SOURCE: Sarah Toy
The Wall Street Journal