ST. LOUIS — Flu cases continue to climb in the St. Louis area, putting major pressure on hospitals that are already at or near capacity.
“This poses significant challenges to ensuring that we can care for everyone in the community,” a report warned Wednesday by a St. Louis area hospital task force.
As the respiratory syncytial virus cases that overwhelmed local hospitals in October have dwindled, they are being replaced by a flu season that is coming fast and furiously.
At Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, about 20 to 40 patients a day come to the emergency room with flu-like symptoms, and 10 to 20 need to be admitted with the flu, said Dr. Robert Poirier, of the University of Washington. physician who acts as the clinical director of the emergency department.
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“We’re seeing twice as many patients this week as the week before, and last week it was also double” the week before, Poirier said Wednesday. “We’re starting this year off with a bang.”
The challenge, Poirier said, is that the hospital is full as well as the emergency department, which increases wait times and limits the ability to transfer patients to higher levels of care.
Many patients also cannot be moved out of the hospital, due to labor issues facing nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and home health services.
“It backs up the whole system,” he said.
So far, the flu season appears to be the worst since 2010 and 2011. Flu cases typically start a steep rise in December and January, but this season sees an unusual jump in October and November.
During the week of Nov. 19, the latest data available, Missouri reported nearly 4,900 lab-confirmed cases of influenza — nearly double the number two weeks prior and already surpassing last year’s peak which is occurred at the end of December.
So far this season through Nov. 19, Missouri has reported nearly 13,700 flu-related cases and three deaths, according to state health department data. The highest rates of influenza cases and hospital visits were seen in children under 4 years old.
Dr. Rachel Orscheln, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Washington University at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said doctors are already seeing large numbers of children hospitalized with the flu.
“We are well above the peak of previous years for cases; and for hospitalizations we are already a bit above the peak of previous years,” Orscheln said.
With no signs of cases stabilizing, she said: ‘I imagine the level of hospitalizations will continue to climb.
The rising number of flu cases has pushed Missouri into the “high” level of spread category on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu map.
Nationwide, there have been at least 6.2 million illnesses, 53,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths from the flu, according to the CDC.
Hospital and public health officials say they don’t know how high the numbers will climb. And while COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have remained stable over the past few months, that too could change and strain the capacity of hospitals.
In the week leading up to Nov. 27, an average of 770 people a day were hospitalized with COVID-19 across Missouri, according to state data. Over the past two months, about 20 to 50 Missourians have died each week from COVID-19.
“Due to holiday gatherings and other indoor activities, we anticipate more cases of RSV, COVID-19 and other respiratory infections,” said the St. Louis in a warning issued Wednesday. “It is important that we do everything possible to prevent the spread of the disease.”
Doctors have urged anyone over the age of 6 months to get a flu shot, which matches the strains circulating well, and to get an updated COVID-19 reminder.
COVID-19 vaccinations are offered weekdays at John C. Murphy Health Center in Berkeley, South County Health Center in Sunset Hills and North Central Community Health Center in Jennings from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Flu vaccines are available at the three health centers from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Also avoid trips to the emergency room, health officials said.
People with mild to moderate cold symptoms can call their primary care physician, use telehealth services offered by insurance, or go to an urgent care center.
Trips to the emergency room should be reserved for people with difficulty breathing, sudden dizziness, severe vomiting, dehydration, high fever or fever above 100.4 for infants under 8 weeks old.
“We’re overwhelmed,” Poirier said, “and if you have mild symptoms you’re going to be waiting a long time to be seen because we’re busy treating those who are sicker.”
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