Two different flu bugs are keeping hospital emergency doctors busy

Strains of influenza are ripping across the U.S., and hospitals in the Fresno area are seeing growing numbers of patients coming to their emergency rooms suffering with respiratory problems and other flu symptoms.

At Saint Agnes Medical Center in northeast Fresno, spokeswoman Kelley Sanchez reports that the emergency department broke a record for the number of patients seen in a 24-hour period, treating 343 people in a single day last week. Many of those were for flu or other breathing difficulty, and other local hospitals say they’re also finding themselves swamped with possible flu patients.

In the week before Christmas, the number of patients testing positive for flu at Saint Agnes was more than double the same week of 2016.

Indeed, Central California and the entire state are experiencing elevated flu activity, according to the California Influenza Surveillance Program. The state Department of Public Health reports that outpatient treatments for influenza-like illnesses and hospitalizations both above levels that were expected for this flu season so far.

“We’re definitely seeing a surge both in the emergency room with upper respiratory infections and the number of patients in the hospital,” said Dr. Dee Lacy, an infectious disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente’s Fresno medical center. “We know this is a bad flu year.  It feels like everybody is coughing and having a lot of mucous.”

It’s not unusual for doctors and hospitals to see more patients during the annual winter flu season. What’s different this year, Lacy said, is that there are two strains of flu that are making the rounds simultaneously. Across Kaiser Permanente’s Northern California region, nearly 49 percent of patients from whom respiratory samples were collected as of last week tested positive for flu virus infections – 37.3 percent with the A strain of the flu, 11.4 percent with the B strain. “We not only have a lot of A, but a significant amount of B,” Lacy said. “Usually they take turns, but this year we’re seeing both at the same time.”

Doctors are also coping with another bug, respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. “It causes real problems for tiny babies; that’s the reason they put up signs at the children’s hospital to keep kids at home,” Lacy said. “It causes a disease like influenza, with more wheezing and more mucous, but the fever is a little lower. It can affect people of any age.”

Nationally, nearly 360 deaths were attributed to influenza viruses between Oct. 1 and Dec. 9, according to the Fresno County Department of Public Health. All but 71 of those were among people age 65 and older.

Joyce Eden, a registered nurse who is the emergency department director at Saint Agnes, said the peak of this flu season “is starting a little later in this winter than what we see in the public health history.”

“Anywhere from mid-November to mid-January is where I’ve always seen it peak,” Eden said.

Community Medical Centers’ hospitals in Clovis and Fresno are also feeling the effects of the flu, spokeswoman Mary Lisa Russell said. “We don’t know if we’re seeing record numbers, but they’re staying busy,” Russell said. Between the flu viruses and poor air quality across Fresno and the Valley, “a lot of people are having breathing problems.”

Lacy said air pollution in the Valley, especially high levels of microscopic particles of soot or dust, “make it a little more challenging to sort out if someone has a cough or runny nose whether it’s flu or something more of an allergic or irritative thing.”

Lacy and Eden both said people need to be careful when they’re out in public, and urge people to stay home if they’re starting to feel symptoms rather than go to work or other public places.

“If you’re sick, stay home. Do not go out and spread your illness to others,” said Lacy. “If you must go out, cover your cough, wash your hands often.”

Eden cautioned people to wash or disinfect their hands frequently and wear paper filter masks if they need to be out in areas where they may encounter crowds. “We don’t wash our hands enough,” she said. “If people carry (disinfecting) gel with them, they should gel their hands if they’re going in and out of public places, handling doorknobs or touching surfaces.”