This year's flu season—which got off to an earlier start than usual and has created high levels of activity across about half the country—is straining capacity at many hospitals, particularly in urban areas.
At WellStar Health System, Marietta, Ga., the system saw three times as many flu cases in November and December as it did during the same period the previous year, with higher flu-related admissions as well, according to spokesman Keith Bowermaster.
He added that the number of cases is already above the number seen during the same period in 2007-08, which is currently the worst flu season on record at WellStar. That season peaked in February, and with this year's peak still an open question, the flu season could well be the system's worst.
The system's own employees are also feeling the effects of the increased flu activity, with Bowermaster noting that his own department of 25 people has seen three cases so far.
At Massachusetts General Hospital, located in Boston where a state of emergency was declared this week because of the flu outbreak, 532 patients had laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu as of Thursday and 167 have been hospitalized.
“We've seen more flu this year than we've seen in the past several years,” said Dr. David Hooper, chief of the infection control unit.
In New York, where at least two major hospitals are still feeling the effects of October's superstorm Sandy, high levels of flu activity are straining the resources of healthcare providers in other parts of the city.
“We're seeing an onslaught of patients, to be honest,” said Dr. Robert Kelly, president of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, which operates the teaching hospitals of Columbia and Cornell universities. “We're a little nervous about it. We had seen a bump up in our volume to begin with.”
Kelly attributed a 10% to 15% increase in emergency room visits to the increased flu activity. More than 110 patients have been admitted.
The system has also increased its staffing, set up overflow waiting areas in its lobby and established a “flu central” to separate flu patients from those without the virus.