Flu cases highest since 2014 at Cooley Dickinson, Baystate hospitals

  • FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015 file photo, a nurse gives administers a flu vaccine shot in Washington. Preliminary data released by U.S. health officials on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2017 suggest this season's vaccine is 48 percent effective. That's not bad since the strain that’s making most people sick is one of the worst. Experts consider it a good year when a flu vaccine is 50 to 60 percent effective. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Jacquelyn Martin

Published: 2/18/2017 12:15:14 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Severe cases of the flu and a growing number of ill patients are being reported at area hospitals, though it’s uncertain whether the incidents will rise to the level of becoming a flu pandemic.

This flu season came on fast and early, said Linda Riley, infection prevention nurse at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton.

At the halfway point of the flu season, Cooley Dickinson and Baystate Medical Center are reporting about 400 positive test results, split evenly at each hospital. Those figures are nearing the total amount of confirmed cases all of last season, hospital officials said.

The flu also started much earlier this year, in November instead of January a year ago.

“In terms of people being sick enough to be in the hospital, that’s a significant difference,” Riley said.

As a result of the uptick in patients with the flu, both hospitals have restricted visiting policies until further notice.

Most of the patients who get intravenous fluids and medicines for their fevers and flu symptoms are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, Riley said, and there have been no pediatric admissions at Cooley Dickinson. One 88-year-old patient with flu symptoms died after being admitted, though that person had multiple medical conditions and underlying issues, Riley said.

“We do have people who have been admitted to the hospital because of the flu,” Baystate Medical Center spokesman Keith O’Connor said on Friday. “That, in itself, makes it severe.”

But O’Connor said Mary Ellen Scales, manager of the infection control program at the Springfield hospital, notes that there haven’t been an unusual amount of admittances, and all have recovered.

“We haven’t had any deaths here, adult or child,” O’Connor said.

Rebecca MacGregor, spokeswoman for Holyoke Medical Center, said the number of flu cases the hospital is seeing is not unexpected or out of the ordinary.

New visiting policies

In recent days, Cooley Dickinson and Baystate announced they have restricted their visiting policies until further notice as the number of confirmed cases of the flu continue to rise to the highest number since 2014.

“We are taking these temporary precautions to help prevent the spread of flu in our community,” Riley said. “Because we have so many students and children in our community, it’s essential we take these precautionary measures.”

MacGregor said Holyoke Medical Center already has strict guidelines in place for visitors, and constantly monitors the situation.

Both Cooley Dickinson and Baystate officials said that non-essential visitors should stay at home and call instead, outpatients should attend appointments alone or be accompanied by immediate caregivers, and children under the age of 14 should not visit the hospital or accompany their families to appointments that are not theirs if avoidable.

Visitors who have been exposed to the flu or have symptoms are asked to refrain from visiting patients at the hospitals.

These restrictions are the result of the highest number of confirmed cases of influenza since 2014. Baystate Reference Labs found that a little over halfway through the typical flu season, confirmed cases have hit almost 200 for the 2016-17 season.

Last season began with isolated cases at the end of January, and the last positive tests were in mid-June. This year began with isolated cases in November.

Cooley Dickinson currently tests about 80 people a week, and has hospitalized over 45 people to date, mostly senior citizens. Of the 1,128 people tested this season, 201 had positive tests.

Riley encourages people to stay home from school or work if they feel sick. She reminds them to wash their hands often, and get the flu vaccination.

She emphasized that flu vaccinations do not make many people sick unless they had already been exposed to it. It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to become effective, which will protect against the most predominant of the circulating strains, but not all. This is partially because the flu virus mutates during the season, causing strains that cannot be prevented with vaccinations.

According to the Center for Disease Control, roughly 50 percent of children aged 6 months to 17 years were vaccinated in 2015, along with 32 percent of adults aged 18-49, 48 percent of adults aged 50-64, and 69 percent of adults over 65 years.

Flu seasons typically span from November to late March or early April.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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