Flu in Rhode Island: How bad is it?

Jan 11, 2013

If you've got the flu, it's bad. Awfully bad. But is this season any worse than unusual? Are hospitals really being overwhelmed by "skyrocketing" cases in an unprecedented outbreak?

I've been checking with my contacts at the state's hospitals, schools, and other institutions to get a sense of how bad things are from their perspective, asking if they're adopting any unusually serious responses, for instance. I've heard from other health care reporters around the country that some hospitals are restricting visitors, or even requiring staff to display something on their badges saying whether they've had a flu shot or not. I've also been studying the state's flu surveillance summaries from years past (surveillance = data and observations about a particular flu season) to try to put this year's experience in some context.

Here's what I've found:

  • Hospital response: Hospitals in Rhode Island tell me they haven't taken any particularly dramatic approaches yet. The state ruled recently that health care workers must get a flu shot or wear a surgical mask, so that's in effect. But as far as I've been told, there are no visitor restrictions or extraordinary precautions. Westerly Hospital is asking people experiencing flu symptoms not to visit patients, but that's not out of the ordinary. Here's what Otis Brown, a spokesman from Roger Williams and Our Lady of Fatima hospitals, told me via email: "Both [hospitals]...are dealing with the flu outbreak as 'business as usual.' We are seeing flu patients through our ERs but not at the severe rate other states are experiencing.  No unusual response needed other than sound policies and procedures."
  • Number of cases: Many hospital emergency departments are seeing big increases in patient numbers, mostly because of the flu, although none say they're overwhelmed. The state reports an average of 10 flu-related hospitalizations and 200 patients seen every day in Rhode Island's emergency rooms. Kent Hospital spokesman James Beardsworth says: "[We've had] 300 positive cases since Oct 1, [but] last year only about 20 all season. [We have] 8-12 positive new cases coming to the ED each day, and at any one time about 10-15 in hospital admissions because of flu, mostly [in the] elderly." Last week, Dr. Brian Zink, emergency medicine chief, told me that Hasbro Children's Hospital saw 600 more patients in December than it did in December 2011 - all because of the flu. South County Hospital tells me about 10% of their hospital admissions are flu-related. Some people are waiting a bit longer for a bed if they need to be admitted. And flu-related complications, like pneumonia, are also on the rise at So. County, according to Lee Ann Quinn, director of infection prevention.
  • Compared to other seasons: Is this season unusual in any way? Somewhat. It started earlier than unusual. The predominant strain circulating this year, H3N2, which we've seen before, tends to kill more people than, for example, the H1N1 strain (although this season's vaccine seems well-matched to H3N2). The last couple of flu seasons were relatively mild, compared to the 2009-2010 season when there was an H1N1 pandemic, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health. That year, the percentage of doctor visits for the flu surpassed 12% by November. Currently, about 4% of visits in Rhode Island are flu-related, according to the health department's latest figures. But that could go up.

So, it's bad, and it could get worse. But our hospitals are coping. And there's still time to get a flu shot, which has proven to be one of the most effective defenses against this year's flu.