Hospitals across the country are battling what is shaping up to be one of the worst flu outbreaks in a decade, 41 states have reported cases and 18 states are experiencing a flu epidemic.
Health officials say 20 children have died and more than 200,000 people have been hospitalized already from influenza this winter including 14-year-old Carly Christenson, who died yesterday at Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
With the severe winter cold season just beginning, doctors are advising as many people as possible to get immunized. It is particularly recommended for the very young, the very old and those with compromised immune systems.
With three more months to go, this flu season is already one of the worst in 10 years, according to experts.
‘In the past 10 years we have seen just two or three like it,’ said Tom Skinner of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One of the most impacted areas is Boston, where Mayor Tom Menino has declared a public health emergency because there are at least 700 flu victims in the city, compared to 70 all of last winter.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said it has seen 18 flu-related deaths in the state this winter, four in Boston, and described cases of the virus as severe.
Health care centers across the city are offering free vaccines to anyone who hasn’t yet been immunized.
‘This is the worst flu season we’ve seen since 2009, and people should take the threat of flu seriously,’ Menino said in a statement.
‘This is not only a health concern, but also an economic concern for families, and I’m urging residents to get vaccinated if they haven’t already.’
Menino also urged people to stay home from work or school if they are sick.
Baystate Health, which operates Baystate Medical Center in Springfield and two other hospitals in western Massachusetts, announced Wednesday that it was changing its visitor policy.
The hospitals are no longer allowing visitors younger than 14 and are recommending no more than two people visit a patient at one time.
‘This is the worst in several years,’ said Dr. Sarah Haessler, an infectious disease specialist at Baystate. She said the flu outbreak has strained the hospital’s resources and helped to fill its beds to capacity.
As cases continue to surge around the county, some hospitals are taking extreme measures to deal with the influx of sick patients.
At one stage on Tuesday a dozen hospitals in the Chicago region were on ‘bypass status’ meaning they were so swamped with flu patients that they had to turn people away.
Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold says almost 150 people have been admitted to intensive care units with the flu this season and six have died.
‘This season is a reminder of how serious flu can be,’ said Dr. Julie Morita of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Elsewhere hospitals are also taking extra precautions including limiting the number of visitors that patients can have or setting-up tents in their parking lots to treat those with only mild symptoms.
Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Pennsylvania has set up a special tent outside of the emergency room on Tuesday to treat patients with flu symptoms after four people died of complications from the virus.
The so-called ‘mobile surge tent’ only accepts patients with flu-like symptoms. It is 1,100 square feet and is equipped to treat six patients at a time with three medical staff.
The tent is only for those with mild flu symptoms while those who have severe cases, need intravenous drips or have underlying health conditions are taken into the hospital.