A flu epidemic has hit Western Washington, and Providence Centralia Hospital is one of many medical facilities experiencing an influx of cases.
Statewide, at least 24 flu-related deaths have been reported. Due to the increase, the state Department of Health and Social Services has declared this flu season an epidemic.
According to Lewis County Public Health and Social Services Director Danette York, there have been no influenza-related deaths in Lewis County.
Chris Thomas, communication manager of Providence’s Southwest Region, said the emergency department at Providence Centralia Hospital has seen three to four times more people come in with the chief complaint of flu-like symptoms. The numbers started to increase between late October and early November.
During the last week of December, 16.2 percent of people who came into the emergency department reported flu-like symptoms. Prior to the spike, typically only 4 to 5 percent of patients come in with the chief complaint of flu-like symptoms.
In the last week of December, 34 people tested positive for the flu, when in an average week one person, if that, would test positive, Thomas said.
Of the 34 people who tested positive for the flu, six of them had to be admitted into the hospital.
Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia also experienced a large increase during the last week of December with 20.6 percent of people in the emergency department experiencing flu-like symptoms, 85 who tested positive for influenza, and 33 individuals who were admitted to the hospital.
Thomas said infection control specialists at Providence have said this flu season is so far panning out to be the worst one in their careers. Those most at risk include youth, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses.
Providence hospitals in the Southwest region, including the one in Centralia, have enacted several safety measures to ensure patient safety. Visitor screening for anyone entering the family birth center and critical care units is now mandatory.
“We make sure they are not showing any signs of the flu and ask them not to come into the units if they are,” Thomas said. “Those patients are obviously the most susceptible.”
The hospitals have also increased the amount of cleanings throughout the building, especially in waiting rooms, bathrooms, common rooms and nursing stations. The number of magazines in the common areas has also been decreased to help stop the spread of germs.
Providence Centralia Hospital will put up large banners at the main entrance to let people know they should ask for a mask if they are sick. It will also remind people to wash their hands and cover their cough to stop the spread of germs.
Caregivers at Providence hospitals who have not received a flu vaccination are currently required to wear a mask in any patient area. That’s common for hospitals once flu season is declared an epidemic by the state’s Department of Social and Health Services, Thomas said.
The hospitals are continuing to monitor other precautionary methods, which would include screening visitors prior to entering the hospital, although that has not yet been enacted. The last time that happened was in 2009.
The season began earlier than normal, according to Thomas, who said flu season typically begins to pick up steam in January and February. This year, the numbers started to increase in October and November.
“It really kicked in mid to late December, which is pretty early,” he said. “That’s the fear that it’s going to be an early and long flu season.”
The influx of patients caused Providence St. Peter Hospital to activate its Disaster Medical Control Center because facilities lacked beds in large part due to individuals infected by influenza.
Nine hospitals in a five-county service area, including the hospitals in Centralia and Morton, helped accommodate patients.
The center was only operational for about 12 hours from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, Thomas said.
Since Capital Medical Center in Thurston County went into “divert” mode, no ambulances were allowed to come to the hospital. Patients were diverted to the other hospitals in the region.
That allowed St. Peter Hospital to monitor all nine hospitals and direct the ambulances to one where beds were available.
“All of the hospitals in region three and up in the I-5 corridor are really full,” Thomas said. “And it all has to do with the flu going on.”
He encouraged those who are experiencing flu-like symptoms to find another method of care outside of the emergency department such as a primary care doctor, immediate care facility, or to utilize virtual services, unless it is a critical situation.
“If the flu is making them critically ill, come to the emergency department,” he said.
But if not, “you can avoid going to the emergency department, sitting for a long time, not feeling good and then also clogging up the emergency department for higher emergent visits,” he said.
Rachel Wood, the health officer for Lewis and Thurston counties, said since Aug. 1 the Lewis County Public Health Immunization Center has given approximately 370 flu shots.
The flu does spreads easily, so she said individuals should cough into the crook of their elbow, stay home if they are sick, and wash their hands frequently. People should not to touch their face, nose, eyes or mouth without first washing their hands, she said.
This year’s flu shot is a good match for the virus, Wood said, after state testing was completed.
She encouraged those who have not yet gotten a flu shot to do so since it’s a good way to protect themselves against the virus. She also encouraged a healthy lifestyle.
“People should really take care of themselves,” Wood said. “We’ve been rushing around with the holiday season. People sometimes are short on sleep and short on exercise. Living a healthy lifestyle and eating healthy foods is a really good foundation for health.”