Flu season 'definitely' different
More-aware patients cause swell at hospitals
By Toby Sells (Contact), Memphis Commercial Appeal
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Flu season looms on the horizon, and as health care organizations gear up for the typical swell in patient volumes, they also ready to battle H1N1 strain -- which has already proven to be lethal.

New numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attribute 9,079 hospitalizations and 593 deaths to the influenza virus from mid-April through the end of August. The World Health Organization and other flu watchers identified 39,827 positive flu cases during the 2007-08 season in the U.S.

But this year's flu season is "definitely" different, said Tennessee State Epidemiologist Tim Jones.

"It's been our job to worry and plan (for an epidemic) but the challenge will be getting the message out to other groups like the Department of Education, businesses and industries," Jones said.

He said larger employers have hired contract nurses to inoculate employees and have established plans for absenteeism and telecommuting.

Patti Patrick, director of infection control and prevention for Saint Francis Hospital-Bartlett, said flu-patient volumes have already increased at her hospital and the increase happened earlier than it did last year. Patients are more aware this flu season, she said, because of the media exposure of H1N1.

The hospital gives its patients flu preparedness kits -- bags filled with tissues, hand sanitizers and flu facts. Also, the hospital has ordered extra supplies, including flu vaccines and syringes, and asks any possible flu patient to wear a mask.

Denise Bollheimer, vice president of marketing and managed care at UT Medical Group Inc., said the clinic has been "aggressively" assessing its options for the coming flu season.

"If we find enough flu cases, we may find it appropriate to dedicate an entire clinic just for flu patients," Bollheimer said. "We would want to isolate them so they are not infecting other, vulnerable people."

UTMG has a team now gathering 2009 flu season information and will meet later in the week to report its findings and make treatment and logistics decisions.

Seasonal flu shots are now being pushed at both Saint Francis-Bartlett and UTMG, especially for their employees.

In May, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it would spend $1.1 billion to develop and mass produce an H1N1 vaccine for every American citizen. That vaccine has been promised for mid-to-late October.

The shot itself will be free but physicians will be able to charge an inoculation fee, usually about $15.

The Southern Hemisphere is just emerging from its flu season and epidemiologist Jones said 90 percent of the flu cases there were of the H1N1 strain.

Flu deaths this year targeted the school-age and young adult population, Jones said, but were no higher statistically than last year.

-- Toby Sells: 529-2742