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Flu Outbreak Forces Some Chicago Hospitals to Turn Away Patients

By Quinn Ford | January 8, 2013 5:45pm
 Some local hospitals struggled with a high number of patients Tuesday as the city saw a spike in the number of flu cases.
Some local hospitals struggled with a high number of patients Tuesday as the city saw a spike in the number of flu cases.
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Flickr/Lance McCord

CHICAGO — With the flu arriving earlier this season and hitting Chicago more severely than in recent years, some local hospitals are struggling to keep up. 

“We’ve been extremely busy," said Dr. David Zich, an emergency care physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. "I started seeing [flu cases] about three or four weeks ago and after a week or two I was saying already it was one of the worst flu seasons I’ve seen in like 12 years.”

Zich said Northwestern Memorial has consistently seen 35 to 50 patients a day with flu-like symptoms. He said during last year's flu season, the hospital treated about five patients a day.

Zich said the spike in cases played a major role in the hospital declaring "bypass" status late Monday and Tuesday morning. "Bypass" status means a hospital is at capacity and will send non-critical patients to other hospitals.

In addition to Northwestern Memorial, at least six other Chicago area hospitals went on bypass throughout the day Tuesday, including University of Chicago Medical Center, Swedish Covenant Hospital, St. Mary's Hospital, Advocate Trinity Hospital, Gottlieb Memorial Hospital and Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Zich said Northwestern Memorial gets an average of 250 to 300 patients a day, so 35 to 50 people coming in with the flu makes a difference.

"That is enough to push us over the edge," Zich said.

But Tiffani Washington, a spokeswoman at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said people who walk into emergency rooms seeking treatment will not get turned away. They may just have a longer wait.

Washington said bypass is basically a "courtesy" for hospitals.

"It certainly doesn’t mean that we’re turning people away from the ER," Washington said.

But why so many cases of the flu this year?

Dr. Julie Morita, medical director for the Chicago Department of Public Health's immunization program, said the main strain of influenza going around Chicago and the nation right now is known as "H3N2."

Morita said the H3N2 strain usually causes pretty severe cases of the flu.

"So, typically in years when that strain is circulating, more people end up in the hospital," Morita said. 

Another reason for the high number of flu cases is the early onset of influenza. Morita said flu cases general increase during mid to late January, but this year, she said cases started to rise in December.

That corresponded with the holiday season when there is a lot of person-to-person contact.

Morita said the best way for a person to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated, even if that person has already gotten sick. She said the vaccine is "a good match" and contains three different strains of the virus.

"We know that the strains that are causing disease in the U.S. are the same strains that are included in the vaccine," Morita said.

She said those who get the vaccine may still get sick, but the symptoms will be far less severe.

Certain groups including the elderly, young children and pregnant woman are especially at risk for developing flu-related complications. Officials stressed common sense strategies to avoid getting sick, such as frequent hand washing and avoiding those who are already sick.