Hospital preps for more flu cases

GW Hospital is bracing for an unprecedented volume of flu patients this winter, but a proclamation by President Barack Obama last month may make it easier to treat them.

Obama declared the H1N1 influenza virus pandemic a national emergency Oct. 23 and informed Congress in a letter the next day that he did so in order “to be prepared in the event of a rapid increase in illness.” Because of the declaration, hospitals are allowed to set up separate areas – quarantined zones – to keep the virus, commonly known as swine flu, from spreading.

“Typically, national emergencies are natural disasters. They allow for more flexible triaging of patients. We’re not at that point yet, obviously. I don’t know if we’ll get there,” said Dr. Gary Little, medical director at GW Hospital. “National emergency [classification] allows the government to tap into resources – we’re more focused on the pandemic status.”

Since Obama declared H1N1 a national emergency, GW Hospital has put in place stricter visitor regulations. No visitors with any flu symptoms or under age 13 are permitted in the hospital, and under some circumstances protective masks will be issued to visitors.

GW Hospital does not supply flu vaccines to the general public, but the employees there have the option and are encouraged to get the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines for their own health and the health of the patients. Little said there are no known negative effects of the vaccine at this point in time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recommend testing for the H1N1 virus, noting the current rapid test is only 20 to 70 percent accurate.

However, by polling certain locations known to be affected by H1N1, the CDC claims that around 99 percent of patients complaining of flu-like symptoms carry H1N1.

Of the patients who go to GW Hospital’s emergency room for flu-like symptoms, less than 1 percent have been admitted overnight to the hospital, Little said.

GW Hospital has not seen any deaths due to H1N1, but there have been some admissions to the Intensive Care Unit due to patients developing pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome, where the patient’s lungs become inflamed and the body has difficulty absorbing oxygen.

The hospital reports that its emergency department is seeing a higher volume of flu cases this year than in past years. Little said the ER is seeing around 25 patients per day complaining of flu-like symptoms.

“We’re definitely seeing more flu cases now than during the entire flu season, and it’s only November,” Little said.

D.C. flu season ends around April, so GW Hospital should expect a “busier than usual winter,” he added.

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