Hospital system, health department taking steps to prevent flu
by Sherrie Norris
Since November 2013, more than 320 people have been tested for the flu within the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, which includes Watauga Medical Center, Blowing Rock Hospital, Cannon Memorial Hospital in Linville, AppUrgent Care and several physicians' offices.
Ninety of those test were confirmed positive.
Since Jan. 1, seven patients have been admitted with the flu at Watauga Medical Center and two to Cannon Memorial Hospital.
The High Country is among those areas of North Carolina in which flu and related symptoms have been running rampant since mid-December. That's a big concern for local health care providers, since the peak of flu season typically occurs during January and February.
In an effort to decrease the spread of flu, the administration at ARHS is requesting that anyone sick with the flu or flu-like symptoms voluntarily refrain from visiting hospitalized family and friends, including those having outpatient procedures. Visitors younger than 12 are also discouraged from visiting the hospitals during this heightened time of caution.
"Patients are very vulnerable while in the hospital, so we are appealing to those community members who may be ill with the flu, or exposed to the flu, to refrain from visiting hospitalized family and friends in order to help us protect the patients in our facilities," Dr. Herman Godwin, chief medical officer for ARHS, said. "Our top priority is to take every appropriate precaution to keep our patients safe."
From sporadic to widespread
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity has been reported in all 50 states this year, with sporadic to widespread illness.
North Carolina is among those reporting widespread cases of flu.
There is a statewide network that monitors influenza activity within emergency departments and some clinical practices, Jennifer Greene, director of Allied Health Services at the Appalachian District Health Department, said.
While all medical providers are not required to report flu-like illness, the network of reporting has proven to be a useful tool in understanding the flu activity, she said, adding, "But, it does not give us an accurate count of how many people have actually had flu in Watauga County."
The weekly report from the N.C. Division of Public Health and State Laboratory ending Jan. 11 shows that there has been a peak of activity that somewhat mirrors what happened in the 2012-2013 flu season, Greene said.
"It is a bit too early to predict whether flu activity has peaked yet, but there is a downward trend in the number of flulike illness being reported," she said.
The majority of flu activity in North Carolina is from the H1N1 strain that was seen in 2009, Greene said.
"According to the CDC, that is also the case nationwide, with over 96 percent of cases being from this strain," she said.
The flu vaccine does include the H1N1 strain, she said, adding that it is not too late to get the flu vaccine.
Contrary to some myths, Greene said, "getting the flu vaccine does not cause the flu. It is the best tool available to help you prevent getting the flu and to prevent spreading it to others."
Getting the vaccine is critical for those who have any type of chronic illness, are pregnant, or have any health condition that weakens your immune system, she said.
"All of these place you at a greater risk for complications if you do get the flu. Sadly, every year in North Carolina -- and across our nation -- many people die from complications resulting from the flu," she said. "In North Carolina recently, we learned about the first child who died from flu."
Also, according to the most recent data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the majority of North Carolina deaths from flu have occurred in a younger age group, those between 25-49 years, she said.
Most people, Greene said, recover from the flu after about a week, without lasting effects.
The Watauga County Health Department offers flu vaccine with walk-in appointments and accepts insurance plans, as well as Medicaid and Medicare.
Both the ARHS and the health department officials agree that practicing good health habits can help prevent the spread of germs, including flu.
Do Your Part
Appalachian Regional Healthcare System has provided the following tips to help you prevent catching or spreading the flu, information to protect yourself, your family and your community from the virus, and symptoms of the flu and appropriate measures to take should they occur:
-Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
-Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.
-Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
-Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
-If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, not into your hands.
-If you get sick with flu, stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from making them sick.
-Get the recommended seasonal flu vaccine.
Flu symptoms include the following:
-Runny or stuffy nose
ARHS recommends that you or your family member seek emergency medical care if these symptoms occur:
-Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
-Pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen
-Severe or persistent vomiting
-Flu-like symptoms that improve, but then return with fever and worsening cough
-In babies, bluish or gray skin color, lack of responsiveness or extreme irritation
Appalachian Regional Healthcare System is working to prevent the spread of flu and appreciates any assistance the public can provide.
For more information about the flu, visit http://www.flu.gov.