It’s no longer a matter of preparing for a bad flu season in Hawaii.
The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu has seen twice the number of flu patients in the last month that it saw at the same time last year, said Dr. Rick Bruno, the hospital’s vice president for patient care.
“It’s definitely, by all accounts, turning out to be a very busy flu season,” Bruno said. “The (emergency department) is very busy. I think all of the (emergency departments) on Oahu right now are feeling the impact.”
Flu rates in the islands typically lag about a month behind the mainland, where people with flu-like symptoms seeking care from hospitals have reached levels not seen since the 2009 swine flu pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In January, the national hospitalization rate for confirmed influenza cases was the highest it’s been since 2010, when the CDC began tracking the data.
The percent of outpatient hospital visits for patients with flu-like symptoms in Hawaii has remained above the state’s baseline for most of this year’s flu season, which runs from October to May.
The number was highest the week ending Dec. 30, when patients with flu-like symptoms made up 9.1 percent of outpatient visits, according to data from the Hawaii Department of Health. In the most recent data, for the week ending Jan. 27, the number dropped to 7.6 percent of outpatient visits.
It’s too early to say if the season has peaked yet, said Dr. Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist.
A virulent strain of the flu – H3N2 – is predominant this season and is more resistant to vaccines than other strains.
Patients frequenting the emergency room at Queen’s are more often elderly people with underlying conditions who, along with infants and children 4 or younger, are more susceptible to the flu, Bruno said.
Sixty-three children have died of the flu this season nationwide, but no pediatric deaths have been reported in Hawaii.
To curb the spread of the virus, local hospitals are moving patients with the flu away from those not infected, limiting visiting hours and asking people who do visit patients to come without children.
Some mainland hospitals have taken more drastic measures. In mid-January the flu hit a city in Pennsylvania so hard a hospital erected tents in its parking lot to accommodate the influx of patients, The New York Times reported.
“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” said Hilton Raethel of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii. “We don’t want it to be as bad as it is on the mainland.”
The flu season is halfway over but health-care professionals say it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
Each year the World Health Organization works with the CDC and similar agencies in other countries to create vaccines. The vaccines contain a combination of three or four different flu strains that researchers predict will be most common.
This year, the CDC recommends the injectable flu vaccine rather than the nasal spray. The shot will be effective until the end of the season.
People who get vaccinated can still get the flu, but the shot might lessen the symptoms, said Dr. Tony Trpkovski of Straub Medical Center.
“It’s like wearing a seat belt in your car,” Trpkovski said. “It gives you some form of protection, more so than you’d have on your own.”
The state health department used to offer flu shots at all public schools and participating private schools through its Stop Flu at School program. In September, funding and staff shortages forced the department to scale the program back, so the vaccine hasn’t been offered at private schools. On Oahu the program is now only offered at 90 public schools, those where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
This link provides a map of clinics that planned to offer flu shots. Some clinics discontinued this season’s shot, so call before making the trip.
Should people who think they have the flu see a doctor? That depends on who you ask.
Raethel of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii recommends seeing a doctor as soon as symptoms surface.
His organization is trying to steer otherwise healthy adults who think they have the flu away from emergency rooms and instead to their primary care physicians, telemedicine or walk-in clinics.
“One of our goal is to ensure that the emergency rooms are open and that they are accessible for people who truly have emergencies,” Raethel said.
The prescription antiviral drug Tamiflu can make symptoms less severe or shorten the course of the flu, but it’s important to take the drug early on in the illness.
Some say seeing a physician isn’t always necessary .
“Don’t panic if you’ve got the flu and you’re healthy,” Trpkovski said. “Just stay home and get better and you’ll be fine.”