By Michele J. Kuhn
Got the flu? You aren’t alone.
“Everybody’s been hit hard,” said Dr. Stephanie Reynolds, medical director at the Emergency Care Center at Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank. “We’re seeing 10 to 20 patients a day that are influenza positive with another 10 a day with the stomach, probable norovirus, and some poor souls are coming in with a combination of both … There’s really not a whole lot we can do for them.
“The numbers in the emergency department are just unbelievable. They are higher numbers than we’ve seen in a decade,” she said.
The flu bug that has hit the area hard reflects what is going on in much of the country. During the last week of December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 41 states had widespread flu activity with all states east of the Mississippi River being impacted.
The flu is being seen in offices, large and small, area schools and anywhere people congregate.
During the past two weeks hospitals in the Meridian Health System, including Riverview, Bayshore Community Hospital in Holmdel and Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, have been using flu swabs – used to diagnose influenza – in record numbers. While Meridian hospitals began seeing the first influenza patients of the season in November, the numbers increased rapidly the week before Christmas and have continued at a high rate.
“From the week before Christmas through New Year’s, we saw more flu than we did the entire last year’s season,” Reynolds said.
Symptoms of influenza include generalized body aches, a fever of 101 or 102 degrees, a headache and chills. Some experience nausea (but not with vomiting and diarrhea), others develop upper respiratory congestion, a runny nose and watery eyes.
The patients who are diagnosed within the first 24 to 48 hours of their symptoms appearing can be given Tamiflu which can shorten the course of the virus but “it isn’t a cure,” Reynolds said. “We find with some people that it upsets their stomach so it’s a lose-lose situation with those people.”
If the flu is not diagnosed at the start, the symptoms themselves are treated. Body aches are treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, nausea with a bland or clear diet, coughing and runny nose with an antihistamine or decongestant. “Each symptom, you want to address,” Reynolds said.
Those who are diagnosed with the flu and must be admitted to the hospital are put in “strict isolation” with staff getting fully gowned, masked and gloved when with the patient. “We shut the door, draw the curtains and put an isolation cart out in front of their room,” Reynolds said.
Isolation is also recommended for patients at home “for a full five days,” the doctor said. Paper plates, disposable cups and plastic utensils should be used. “Don’t share anything.
“For most of the population that comes in with the flu, we are able to rehydrate them in the emergency room – if they are severely dehydrated – give them some reassurance and send them on their way. Like I said, there’s not a whole lot we can do for them,” the doctor said. “The really sick ones, we admit to the hospital.
“The average person is going to be sick for a week, sometimes 10 days.”
About 75 percent of those who got a seasonal flu shot will be protected from the flu; the other 25 percent will get a less severe strain. “They aren’t as sick. Their temperature isn’t as high. It may not last a full 10 days,” Reynolds said. “It’s more like a bad cold, not like ‘I’ve been run over by the No. 7 train.’ ”
While influenza is affecting everyone, it is most dangerous for infants, children, the elderly and pregnant women.
Those who are trying to avoid getting the flu should wash their hands frequently, use antimicrobial hand sanitizers with a soap and water wash after them every five or six times. “Soap and water is hands down the best remedy. Keep your hands clean. Don’t touch anything,” Reynolds said.
She also recommends when going to the supermarket shoppers continue to wear their winter gloves when pushing a grocery cart to avoid contact with germs left by previous users.
Reynolds said Meridian Health was ready for the flu. Alerts were sent out and supplies were ordered. Staff members were given flu shots.
While some people worry that changeable weather can impact flu, Reynolds said she believes the warmer weather the Two River area is now seeing is actually helpful.
“The weather can actually work to our favor. People will go outside and not be trapped indoors. When you’re trapped indoors with people, there’s no circulation or getting away from people who are sick,” she said.
As for whether antibiotics will work, Reynolds advises flu sufferers not to ask for them. “Don’t come looking for an antibiotic, they don’t work at all,” she said. “The flu is a virus, not a bacteria.”