With Flu Spreading, Hospitals Taking Drastic Measures

From flu tents to visitor restrictions, hospitals are trying to limit the flu outbreak

As the nation fights its way through the worst flu season in more than a decade, health care workers across the country are taking extreme—in some cases unprecedented--measures to combat its spread.

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At the Lehigh Valley Cedar Crest Hospital in Allentown, Penn., they've erected an 1,100-square-foot tent to specifically  treat those with flu-like symptoms, a measure they haven’t taken since the H1N1 outbreak of 2009. Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., the tent can treat six patients at a time, has a staff of three, plus immediate access to an emergency room doctor, should the need arise.

"It's important when you have a large number of influenza patients coming into your emergency department and they're waiting in a waiting room, you need to be able to segregate them the best that you possibly can," said Dr. David Burmeister.

Similarly, Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., has expanded its E.R. into a nearby conference room to handle the overflow of patients.

At St. Francis Hospital in Hartford, Conn., Dr, Rolf Knoll says they've seen a ten-fold increase in flu cases. In an effort to hold the flu at bay, St. Francis has for the first time ever posted signs asking people not to visit patients if they have a fever or cough.

Other area hospitals and medical centers have gone even further, allowing only adult visitors.

"[We're] committed to ensuring the safety of our patients, visitors and staff during flu season and especially during this unusual flu season," says Deborah Parker, Senior Vice President for Patient Care Services & Chief Clinical Officer for Eastern Connecticut Health Network, which is limiting visitors to adults at all its hospitals. "We recognize that these temporary changes to our visitor policies may be inconvenient and disappointing to some, but they are in the best interest of everyone."

Further up I-95, Boston Mayor Tom Menino has declared a "flu emergency," in the wake of 700 reported cases of flu, accounting for 4 percent of area hospital visits.

"This is not only a health concern, but also an economic concern for families, and I'm urging residents to get vaccinated if they haven't already," said Menino via a press release. "It's the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family. If you're sick, please stay home from work or school."

Lyn Finelli, who heads the surveillance and response team that monitors influenza for the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said this year's flu season was about five weeks ahead of the average, and CDC spokesman Tom Skinner fears the spread is "still accelerating."

In California, where the flu outbreak has not yet been quite as severe, medical professionals are steeling themselves.

"We're now at a status called regional, where we're seeing regions that have a number of cases. And likely in the next week or two we'll move to what's called widespread," warned Dr. Ron Chapman of the California Department of Public Health.

In Canada, the government has already released its stockpile of Tamiflu in anticipation of a shortage. Here in the U.S. that's not yet been a problem, though demand for Tamiflu is definitely spiking, even in California.

"We want to make sure we save it so we have enough supplies for the people that are most at risk--elderly people, people with chronic health conditions," explained Dr. Melody Mendiola of Hennepin County Medical Center.

This flu season has already seen more than 200,000 people hospitalized across the country. The CDC recommends that on a personal level you can help by getting immunized and washing your hands, among other measures.

And there's even a Facebook app called Who Gave Me the Flu that searches your friends' status updates for key words like "cough" and "sneeze" to see who may have infected you, or you can sign up for Flu Near You, a map administered by Healthmap of Boston Children’s Hospital, that tracks the spread of the illness and its symptoms.

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