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Hospitals overwhelmed by flu patients may cancel other services

Posted Oct 28 2009 11:43am


Hospitals in many parts of the country are beginning to have difficulties with overcrowding in both their emergency departments and ICUs.  Many patients are coming to emergency rooms who are sick but many are also coming out of fear.  That fear is being driven by a variety of factors, including publicity, the vaccine shortage and reports of deaths in younger than normal age groups and children, as compared to the seasonal flu which usually impacts the elderly disproportionately.  In the case of ICUs, they were not designed for extended acute care services.  With Swine flu, patients who need ICU care, though a minority of all H1N1 infected patients, they will consume large amounts of both medical resources and medical manpower.  Hospitals are moving quickly to attempt to address the needs as they arise and differ from region to region.  Hospitals and their medical staffs are gearing up for what is beginning to look like a long fall and winter flu season . . . ben kazie md

Overcrowding scenes at Johns Hopkins are being repeated at hospitals in Denver, Duluth, Seattle, San Diego and elsewhere nationally, as waves of flu patients arrive at their doors, doubling their emergency room volume. Just as significant is the effect on intensive care units: A relatively small number of flu patients are requiring intensive care, but some are so ill they will need round-the-clock care for weeks.  Doctors at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere expect the number of patients needing hospitalization and intensive care to rise. Such an influx of intensive care patients eventually could force some hospitals to cancel services such as elective surgery, they say.

Why did President Obama declare a national emergency? Because what’s going on at Hopkins is happening across the country. An infection that generally doesn’t appear to be severe is pushing hospitals to their limit.The White House declaration, announced Saturday, was designed to give hospitals the flexibility to move patients to satellite facilities if they are overwhelmed in dealing with an outbreak that is now widespread in 46 states and afflicting millions of people.

H1N1 is moving rapidly, as expected. By the time regions or health care systems recognize they are becoming overburdened, they need to implement disaster plans quickly. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported Friday that the swine flu virus, also known as H1N1, has killed more than 1,000 people nationwide and prompted 20,000 to be hospitalized. For the second week in a row, deaths from flu and pneumonia increased last week, reaching a total of 2,416 from Aug. 30 to Oct. 17. Ninety-five children have died of swine flu since April, 11 more last week, he says.  Seasonal flu typically kills about 36,000 people and hospitalizes 200,000, the CDC says.

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