H1N1 strain expected to increase numbers
Most of us are having trouble believing summer is almost gone, but for health care professionals, winter is already right around the corner. Physicians, infection control specialists, and nurses met this week at Providence Holy Cross and other Providence Medical Centers to discuss preparations for the winter flu season, which is expected to bring more patients than usual because of the new H1N1 flu strain.
“The H1N1 flu doesn’t appear to be as strong as the influenza strains that we typically see every year, but because it’s a new strain, we expect more people to contract the virus,” said Bernard Klein, M.D., chief medical officer for Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.
Only a very small percentage of flu sufferers require hospitalization – primarily those with underlying medical conditions. In fact, experts advise those with the flu to stay home and seek medical help only if their symptoms become serious.
Among the issues discussed were the need to separate influenza patients from other patients in the emergency department waiting room and ensure any additional equipment is available to meet demand. Other concerns included providing additional resources to patients upon discharge, speeding up the turn-around time for lab tests, and providing the community at-large with information on flu prevention, symptoms, and proper care.
Previously called “swine flu,” H1N1 has been cited in 302 deaths this year in the U.S. compared to seasonal flu, which annually claims some 65,000 lives nationwide. More than half the confirmed 44,771 H1N1 cases in the U.S. since the strain was identified in April were in the 5- to 24-year-old age range, a group that tends to be in close contact with others in schools and day-care settings. As with the seasonal flu, the most susceptible are those with underlying health conditions; about 70 percent of the more than 5,000 patients hospitalized with H1N1 suffered from chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease, morbid obesity, and diabetes.
A vaccine is being developed and distribution is expected to begin in October, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC’s recommend priorities, among the first to receive vaccines should be pregnant women to protect their newborns who cannot be immediately immunized; health care and emergency medical services workers and caregivers for children because of their exposure risk; and those from 6 months through 24 years.
Connie Lackey, emergency preparedness manager for Providence Health & Services’ Valley Service Area, is broadening the three medical centers’ emergency response plans to ensure Providence Medical Centers will be ready to respond to both the seasonal and H1N1 flues.
“As the flu season approaches, rapidly changing information offered from a wide variety of sources can lead to confusion and uncertainty,” Lackey said. “We are planning now so we can be a dependable source of accurate information, and care for our patients using the most current public health guidelines.”
The plan will also include strategies for increasing the number of patients that can be accommodated while maintaining separate areas for non-flu patients.