Hundreds of people have gone to local hospitals with flu-like symptoms, and at least two Franklin assisted living facilities have limited visitors as the flu and similar ailments are hitting the county earlier and harder this winter.
More than 200 people have been tested for the flu at local hospitals, which is more than five times the typical number for this time of year. At least two local immediate care centers have asked employees to work extra hours to see more patients suffering from high fevers and respiratory problems.
During the first week of January, 141 patients at Johnson Memorial Hospital were tested for the flu, which is nearly five times the 30 tests the hospital gives in a typical week, said Bill Oakes, hospital director of business development.
And at Franciscan St. Francis Health-Indianapolis, 126 patients were tested for the flu, which is significantly more than average, spokesman Joe Stuteville said.
Local health officials say this flu season intensified about four weeks earlier than normal, and the virus common right now, influenza A virus H3N2, causes worse symptoms than other flu viruses. The same is true across the state and nation. Local health officials say this year’s flu vaccine should stop people from getting the virus that’s circulating or at least lessen their symptoms, but they are concerned not enough people have been vaccinated yet.
The Indiana State Department of Health has reported a worse-than-normal flu season, and 15 residents statewide have died from the flu since November. No deaths from the flu were reported at this time last year.
The flu season usually lasts from October to March, with a peak in February. This year, the state started seeing an increase of cases in January, and officials are unsure if the season has reached its peak yet, state health department epidemiologist Pam Patones said.
“We don’t know at this point for certain if our activity has actually peaked or if it’s still going to continue,” she said. “We’re certainly monitoring our activity very closely.”
Patones and local health officials say the flu vaccine this year is a good match for the viruses going around, but they wonder if enough people have been vaccinated.
Johnson Memorial Immediate Care Center clinic supervisor David Van Remortel said he does not think people had enough time to get the vaccine before the flu season hit.
Shot matches virus
Scientists create a new flu vaccine every year based on what viruses they think people will get in the upcoming season, county health officer Dr. Craig Moorman said. The vaccine is not always a 100 percent match for the viruses that show up, but he said the vaccine people are receiving this year has mostly prevented them from getting the influenza A virus that’s going around or has at least lessened their symptoms.
“It’s more effective this year than in some years, but it’s not perfect,” Moorman said.
People can still get a flu vaccine, but they won’t be immune for about two weeks, Remortel said.
At the county health department, nurses say as many people are coming in for flu vaccines now as they did at the beginning of flu season, which is unusual. In October, an average of 10 residents went to the office a day to get a flu vaccine, and that number is about the same now, director of nursing Lisa DeVault said.
Local health officials say the influenza A virus is affecting mostly young children and elderly residents, and school and assisted living facility administrators have taken precautions by encouraging people to get the vaccine and to wash their hands frequently.
Two Franklin assisted living facilities are taking precautions by limiting who can visit their buildings.
For the past month, Homeview Health and Rehabilitation Center has asked visitors who were sick to stay away from the facility for a few days, and the Franklin United Methodist Community has started canceling visits from outside groups, such as students from local schools, and limiting visits from residents’ family members.
In previous years, the retirement center asked visitors to stay away from certain areas, such as one floor of the health center building; but this year, the facility limited visitors to all of its buildings, executive director Keith Van Deman said.
The restrictions will continue until no residents have new cases of the flu for several days in a row, Van Deman said.
“It may be an inconvenience, but most people understand,” he said.
Franklin and Greenwood school administrators said more students were out sick in December than usual, some of them with flu-like symptoms, but they do not have an increase in absences currently.
About 30 students at each of Greenwood’s elementary schools were absent per day in the weeks before winter break. That number is nearly double the daily absences in previous months, head nurse Libby Cruzan said.
Not all students were home with the flu, but some reported having respiratory problems similar to the flu, Cruzan and Franklin schools health services coordinator Beth Arkanoff said. Franklin schools follow typical procedures and ask students to stay home if they have a fever over 101 degrees.
Greenwood schools plan to keep track of how many students have the flu, which they do not usually do, Cruzan said.
As more people develop flu-like symptoms, two immediate care centers in Greenwood and Franklin have asked employees to work longer days.
About 40 people are going to the Johnson Memorial Immediate Care Center each day with flu-like symptoms, and clinic employees have had to stay up to an hour past closing to see patients who are still in the lobby, Remortel said.
“Over the last two to three weeks, we’ve seen a significant increase in volume. I would say it’s similar to previous years we’ve had of higher volume,” he said.
Greenwood Immediate Care Center, on Madison Avenue, has asked physicians to come in early and stay later to see more patients, said Dr. Timothy Burrell, vice president of Dynamic Medical Practice Services.
Burrell said he is not surprised Indiana is having a bad flu season this year because the state has had mild seasons in recent years.
“Where you have a light flu season for many years in a row, it may be that many more people are susceptible. We just have a bad year,” he said.