By Patrick Svitek, Chicago Tribune reporter
7:39 PM EST, January 8, 2013
More than a dozen Chicago-area hospitals started their week overwhelmed with influenza cases, having to send incoming ambulances elsewhere at times as they dealt with what health officials have described as the worst flu season in nearly a decade.
On Monday, 11 Illinois hospitals had to go on bypass status, meaning they could not handle any more patients without life-threatening illnesses, said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health. Throughout Tuesday, four to eight hospitals across the state were on bypass at any given point.
One of them, the University of Chicago Medical Center, has had to pair patients with similar infections in previously half-occupied rooms and order more supplies, including surgical masks and testing materials.
"We are seeing a ton of influenza cases," said Dr. Emily Landon, epidemiologist at the medical center. "Our hospital is incredibly busy."
The spate of diversions is the latest evidence of what doctors have called the earliest and most active flu season since the turn of the millennium.
For the first week of 2013, 24 Illinois hospitals went on bypass for nearly 400 hours, Arnold said. That's a fourfold increase in the amount of time that hospitals weren't accepting noncritical patients compared with the first week of 2012, when seven hospitals logged fewer than 100 hours of bypass time.
On Friday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Illinois among 29 states experiencing "high" flu activity through the last week of 2012.
From Sept. 30 to the end of 2012, nearly 100 people spent time in intensive care units of Chicago hospitals with flu-like symptoms, according to the city's Department of Public Health. Last year, only one person had been sent to an ICU with the flu in about the same time period.
Dr. Julie Morita, medical director for Chicago's health department, said in an email Tuesday that the number of cases in the city is still rising.
"Flu season has hit early, and it has hit hard," Dr. Bechara Choucair, the city's public health commissioner, said in a news release Tuesday.
Infection control coordinator Cathy Paulus attributed Gottlieb Hospital's bypass status to a "huge spike" in flu cases that started gaining momentum around Thanksgiving. She said 1 in 10 of the Melrose Park hospital's emergency room patients have had flu-like symptoms since the season kicked into high gear.
"That is obviously stressing all the emergency rooms in the area," Paulus said.
Dr. David Zich said the influx of flu patients is the worst he has seen in 12 years. The internal and emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital called bypass status "unusual but not extremely rare."
"It does happen maybe 14 times a year," Zich said. "We like to minimize it as much as possible."
Bypass status is determined by inpatient capacity, or how many patients are waiting for medical attention. For that reason, Arnold cautioned that the number of hospitals on bypass varies on an hourly basis.
Zich estimated that more than 35 patients with flu-like symptoms passed through the emergency department's waiting room while Northwestern Memorial was on bypass Monday night.
The majority of those ER visitors did not require medical attention, he said.
"The flu in and of itself is not a reason to come to the emergency department," Zich said, noting that an ER visit is "not necessary" unless the flu is coupled with difficulty breathing or another serious illness, such as heart disease.
Zich was emphatic that the only ambulances being rerouted were those carrying noncritical patients.
Landon said the current strain is historically more responsible for hospitalizations than other strains, but she was taking the outbreak in stride.
"This is not an apocalypse situation here," she said. "It's a really busy time in the hospital, and it's always a really busy time in the hospital in the winter."
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