Flu cases on rise in region, hospitals implement visiting restrictions

Published 8:26 am Friday, December 22, 2017

As the number of flu cases rises throughout the region and across the country, medical care providers are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the illness.

On Thursday, Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont announced the two health systems are implementing visitation restrictions at all of their facilities to help curb the spreading of influenza. In a released statement, the health systems declared that flu activity is now “widespread” in the Tri-Cities region.

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“The flu numbers in the region, and at all of our hospitals, are skyrocketing,” said Teresa Hicks, a spokesperson for Mountain States.

Both Mountain States and Wellmont are asking anyone younger than 12 and anyone experiencing any flu-like symptoms to refrain from visiting patients in the hospital at this time, Hicks said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by flu viruses. These viruses can cause mild to severe illnesses, and can sometimes be fatal. The CDC said the flu is different from a traditional cold, and the flu usually comes on suddenly.

People who have the flu often feel some, or all, of these symptoms: Fever or feeling feverish/chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue (tiredness). Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

During flu season, both the Mountain States and Wellmont health systems typically implement these visiting restrictions. However, Hicks said the restrictions are being put in place earlier this year than in previous years due to the recent spike in cases.

During the week of Dec. 3, Mountain States and Wellmont hospitals recorded 54 positive flu cases. The following week, that number more than doubled to 140 positive cases.

“We’ve seen a sharp increase in flu cases over the last several days, and we expect the numbers to continue to grow,” said Jamie Swift, director of infection prevention at Mountain States. “We’re implementing these restrictions at our hospitals to protect our patients and our community as a whole.”

The flu activity here in the region is similar to what is being experienced across the country according to the CDC. During flu season, the CDC monitors what it terms “influenza-like illnesses,” or “ILL” throughout the United States via reports from state and regional health departments.

Currently, Tennessee is classified as having “regional” flu activity, meaning there are regions of the state that are seeing high levels of the illness, but it is not a state-wide issue at this time. Four of Tennessee’s neighboring eight states — Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri — are already seeing what the CDC classifies as “widespread” flu activity, which is the highest classification for the spread of the disease.

“Seasonal influenza activity continues to increase across the United States,” the CDC’s weekly “FluView” report states. “The proportion of people seeing their health care provider for influenza-like illness increased sharply from last week and has been at or above the national baseline for three weeks so far this season.”

“Several flu activity indicators are higher than is typically seen for this time of year,” the report adds.

The CDC states the flu vaccine is the best way for individuals to protect themselves from contracting the illness. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older who has not had their annual flu shot to get one “as soon as possible” to avoid catching the virus.

“We are entering the peak of flu season much earlier this year, so if you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, please get one. Now is the time,” Swift said.

According to the CDC, flu virus is highly contagious and people with the flu can spread it to others before they even realize they are sick.

“Most healthy adults may be able to infect other people beginning 1 day before symptoms develop and up to 5 to 7 days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than 7 days. Symptoms start 1 to 4 days after the virus enters the body,” the CDC said. “That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some people can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons may still spread the virus to others.”

According to CDC people with the flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away. The CDC recommends avoiding people who are sick and if a person is sick recommends they stay home. It also is important to wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. Further, frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected at home, work and school, especially if someone is ill.

“The flu is a potentially fatal virus that can spread even before symptoms arise, so it is important to observe these restrictions and protect patients,” said Gail Stanley, M.D., an infectious disease physician at Bristol Regional Medical Center. “People should take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and prevent spreading the virus, such as washing their hands frequently, covering their cough and staying home if they are ill. But the best move anyone can make is to receive a flu vaccination, which is readily available throughout the region.”