A feverish tent city. Overcrowded beds. A weary nation.
Across the United States, disease experts are bracing for record numbers of cases of influenza during the 2018-2019 season, as schools, day care centers and hundreds of hospitals continue to feel the impacts of the virus, which has racked up more than 5,000 hospitalizations in the country so far this year, according to the latest report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of confirmed flu cases have been in the South.
The soaring numbers of flu cases follow historic outbreaks across the country last year, which saw the flu strike low-income communities the hardest and have seen weak vaccination rates across many parts of the country, especially among young people. With another flu season upon us, it appears that although the season hasn’t yet officially started, it has already begun to take a toll, and many patients are coming down with serious symptoms.
Dr. Monica Odom, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, said she’s seen patients — many of them young children — seeking urgent care for what she describes as life-threatening complications from the flu. The hospital, she said, routinely treats dozens of serious cases during every flu season, but she is “expecting over 40” during this flu season.
“We see sick patients who are coming in with recurrent symptoms like being extremely feverish and vomiting a lot, and the virus sets in, and the virus then continues to stay in their systems,” she said. “So they have become more and more ill with flu and their medical conditions.”
“It can be something that’s more serious than influenza and it leads to pneumonia, which then warrants admission and generally causes serious complications,” she said.
Many doctors recommend febrile illness, or very sick people, be seen as quickly as possible. But sometimes the urgency of their symptoms can lead to unnecessary illnesses that can worsen underlying problems.
“In most cases we say, ‘come on in. Get an appointment,’ but we know that certain people just can’t be here,” Odom said. “It makes sense from a practical standpoint that if we start an outpatient clinic or we start a rapid response clinic in the afternoon and we see other sick people in the morning, they may just need to be admitted to the hospital to be stabilized.”
Flu symptoms include a fever between 100 and 104 degrees, cough, headache, body aches, a runny nose and fatigue. There’s some risk of complications with a particularly sick case of the flu, including pneumonia. While the illness normally lasts a week, the CDC estimates that some people with the flu can go up to 10 days without showing symptoms, making them vulnerable to an even more severe flu.
Overall, reports of flu cases in recent weeks have reached epidemic proportions across the country, and numbers continue to grow. The CDC says that more than 2,000 children have been treated for the flu this season, up from 1,500 in the same time period in a recent season. More than 120 people have been hospitalized in the region surrounding Los Angeles, with over 10 cases reported in California. Hospitals in New Jersey have had to send up to 60 patients to an emergency room in Massachusetts, and many Illinois hospitals in the Chicago area have been inundated with patients. Among hospitals in the Atlanta area, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, about 200 patients go to the ER every day for flu-related illnesses.
In Chicago, Dr. Robert Kleppel, the chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Memorial Hospital, said that the hospital has seen more and more people with the flu in recent weeks, with many of them presenting symptoms so severe that they had to be admitted to the hospital.
“We typically see over 40 cases per flu season, and the last two weeks we’ve seen over 120 cases,” he said. “The real situation is more acute this year, since I believe we have a mild season and a weak season.”
The flu isn’t likely to peak until October, and a strain of the virus called “H3N2” has caused problems across the country. Hospitals in Baltimore and Baltimore City Health Department officials have warned that children and people with the flu are at a greater risk of developing pneumonia and developing brain problems, and that parents should be careful not to administer flu shots to children with flu-like symptoms.
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