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East Coast medical officials see flu spreading 'like wildfires'

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 9:59 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — HACKENSACK, N.J. — Influenza is rampant across the nation, and New Jersey is smack in the middle of what local physicians are calling an epidemic.

“It’s here. Big time,” said Dr. Thomas Birch, president of the medical staff at Holy Name Medical Center. “When the virus comes into a community with susceptible individuals, it will literally spread like those wildfires in California that burn everything in their path.”

The onslaught of the illness marks the first time in about a decade that influenza is so prevalent this early in the year — 41 states are reporting widespread flu activity. More than 2,200 people nationwide have been hospitalized and 18 children have died, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So many people are sick that St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., on Monday treated a record number of patients — 514 compared with about 420 it normally sees, said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, chairman of emergency medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare System, which has hospitals in Paterson and Wayne, N.J.

The city hospital admitted 90 patients, up sharply from the 60 to 65 typically kept for treatment on any given day.

The flu is spreading fast — and it’s virulent, doctors said.

“This has a ferociousness I’ve never seen before,” Rosenberg said. “This is the worst I’ve seen as far as how quickly it came on.”

St. Joseph’s in Wayne also saw a significant rise in patients, said Maria Christensen, administrator director for both hospitals.

“The volume is extremely high,” Christensen said. “It’s been a crescendo — going from nothing to really busy in a week or two.”

Every county in New Jersey is experiencing either a “high” or “moderate” level of activity, according to the state department of health.

New Jersey health officials designate the flu activity in each county based on the number of patients who test positive for influenza. But because many sick people do not seek medical attention and doctors don’t swab every patient to test for the flu, experts say the numbers are actually higher than those reported.

“This is the most active flu season I’ve seen,” said Dr. Michelle Mayer, a pediatrician with Chestnut Ridge Pediatrics in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. “We’re seeing it in children of all ages — I just had a 2-month-old with it, which can be dangerous when they’re that young.”

Doctors said between 70 percent and 80 percent of the flu cases they’re seeing are type A (H3N2), which is usually more virulent than type B. This season’s vaccine protects against this strain as well as a type B and the swine flu, though some physicians are seeing a small number of sick patients who had been vaccinated.

For unknown reasons, the vaccine is sometimes ineffective. Experts speculate that it may sometimes take a season to respond completely to the vaccine and build antibodies, or that residents are exposed to the virus before the vaccine has enough time to take effect. In addition, often the elderly don’t make antibodies as well as younger adults or children.

Doctors still strongly urge everyone to get vaccinated, reporting that the patients they’re seeing who got a flu shot are experiencing milder symptoms and usually are sick for a shorter period of time than the typical run of the illness. Even with the two-week incubation period, the vaccine will still provide protection because the flu season is usually a six-week to two-month cycle.

Englewood Hospital and Medical Center has also been slammed with patients and confirmed 150 cases of influenza last week. These include tests conducted by physicians in private practice as well as patients who came to the emergency room, said Dr. Steven Weisholtz, chief of infectious disease.

“We’re seeing large numbers — it’s an epidemic,” Weisholtz said. “All ages are getting hit hard but the elderly are predominantly the patients being admitted.”

Still, this year’s numbers are not approaching the 2009-10 season, when flu levels hit pandemic levels and nearly 300 children died from influenza.

“There is a severity to influenza this season but it’s not unusual,” said Dr. Gary Munk, director of clinical virology at Hackensack University Medical Center. “What’s remarkable about this is the heightened levels we’re seeing this early.”

Dr. Shoshana Feiner, an internist at New Jersey Associates in Medicine in Fair Lawn, said about 25 percent of the approximately 60 patients a day they’re seeing are testing positive for the flu.

“We’re extremely busy and we’re getting lots of phone calls from patients that we’re trying to fit in,” Feiner said. “It’s been this busy since before the holidays and hasn’t slowed down.”

Flu patients can be contagious one to three days before feeling ill and then have the telltale symptoms — cough, fever, achy joints and muscles and sometimes vomiting — for five to seven days before starting to improve. They may feel some relief if they take an antiviral medication such as Tamiflu within 48 hours of becoming sick. It may shorten the illness by a day or two and diminish some of the symptoms, doctors say.

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