Health & Fitness

Sick fill area ERs, but not just with flu

Area emergency rooms are full, and health officials are asking people to consider the severity of their illness before going to one for flu symptoms.

In fact, they suggest calling your primary-care doctor before heading to the emergency room. If you don't have one, call the United Way of the Plains' 211 for a referral to a community health clinic.

It's not just H1N1 that has filled emergency rooms.

But Via Christi and other hospitals are seeing an increase in patients with flu symptoms, as are hospitals across the state, and that's putting pressure on them.

"It is clear that influenza activity is continuing to increase in Kansas," said the executive summary of Friday's new H1N1 report from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The weekly report said flu activity is greater now than for February, the month that seasonal flu usually peaks in Kansas.

It said about 10 percent of the patients seeking care from their doctors had flu symptoms. That rate was highest in northwest Kansas and lowest in south central, where the rate decreased slightly from the week before. KDHE divides the state into six regions; Sedgwick County is in the south-central region.

The new report said the rate of hospital admissions also increased over the previous week, especially in northwest and southeast Kansas.

Alice Bell, director of emergency and trauma services at Via Christi, and Greg Faimon, an emergency room physician at Galichia Heart Hospital, said emergency room use has increased by about 30 percent in recent weeks.

But that's "not just for flu, this is for everything," Faimon said. Bell said Via Christi was seeing a hodgepodge of complaints.

In fact, the emergency department at Via Christi Regional Medical Center's St. Francis Campus was full Friday afternoon — and not one person there had flu symptoms, Bell said.

Of the 2,800 emergency room patients at Via Christi last week, 511 had flu symptoms, according to the Sedgwick County Health Department. Of them, 20 needed hospitalization.

Faimon said he'd seen about 20 patients with flu symptoms each day for the past two weeks, and none of them needed hospitalization.

Few of those going to emergency rooms with flu symptoms need that level of care, Bell said.

"The typically fairly healthy adult or child, the flu just has to run its course," she said, recommending over-the-counter products to treat symptoms.

People who are short of breath, unable to reduce their temperature or becoming dehydrated because of continued vomiting or diarrhea "need to seek health care, and the first thing they ought to do is call their primary-care provider" or United Way of the Plains' 211 to be referred to a community health clinic, she said.

Bell speculated that some people may go to the emergency room because of reports of people dying from influenza-related causes.

"I think we have a level of fear beyond what we're clinically seeing," she said. "Both my kids have had it. They didn't feel good for a while. But it runs its course."

Rather than suggesting that people don't need medical care, she said, her message is, "get the appropriate care in the appropriate setting."

That was the message of the Sedgwick County Health Department as well, in a news release sent Friday with the cooperation of Via Christi, Galichia, Wesley Medical Center and the VA Medical Center.

It said seeking care in an emergency room can mean additional expense and exposing others to the virus.

Via Christi has posted signs to let patients and visitors know that visitation by children 12 and under is not permitted. Faimon said Galichia is recommending that children not visit.

The new KDHE report said more than half the elementary and middle schools in Sedgwick County are reporting absenteeism rates of 10 percent or higher.

Overall, that's true for about two-thirds of the state, according to the report.

In Sedgwick County at the high school level, somewhere between 10 and 49 percent of the schools are reporting high absenteeism rates, the report said.

The median age of those with flu symptoms in Kansas is 16, the report said. More than half of those with symptoms — 53 percent — are between 5 and 24 years old, with another 22 percent between 25 and 49.

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