Hamilton hospitals planning for flu season 'surge'

Arrival of the flu season has already started sending people to emergency departments at Hamilton hospitals. Public health and Hamilton Health Sciences urge people to stay home and get rest.

Hundreds of people visit ER with flu symptoms, some hospitalized

Hamilton Health Sciences is planning for higher volume visits due to the flu season, says Sarah Khan, the associate director of infection and control. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

It's still early in the flu season, but hospitals in Hamilton are already beginning to plan for a "surge" in visits to the emergency room.

"Comparing this year to last year just based on public health reporting of numbers, we seem to have an earlier hit and seeing more numbers at this time last year," said Sarah Khan, the associate director of infection and control at Hamilton Health Sciences.

City of Hamilton Public Health said in the last week between Dec. 3 to 9, there were 160 visits to the emergency department with "influenza-like illnesses" alone. The numbers have decreased from the week prior when there were 205 visits.

"We have been seeing an increase since the fall in those numbers, but they've been stable in the last couple of weeks," said Laura Bourns, a public health physician.

Khan said the pediatric units "bear the brunt of the flu season," but they aren't "in a surge at this time."

"My understanding is there's definitely some open beds at this time, we have the capacity to open extra beds if needed still," Khan said.

If more beds need to be opened, she said they may "multi-purpose" some areas of the hospital, such as placing beds in the sedation clinic.

Overcrowding at hospitals

However, in other Hamilton hospitals, the surge may already be happening.

"Our summer was very busy, so the adult side has been having surge issues longer standing that are beyond flu," she said.

According to numbers obtained through a Freedom of Information request filed by the New Democratic Party, hospitals at Hamilton Health Sciences have been running over capacity since October last year.

In September this year, the occupancy rate of acute medical and surgical beds at HHS was 108.8 per cent.

Khan said they've seen some patients admitted into the hospital for the flu, but there aren't any definitive numbers at this point.

Flu vaccines are also available in the form of a nasal spray. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Matching flu strains

Khan said the flu season this year may be worse than the last, judging from how badly Australia was hit and also concerns about the flu vaccine not being as effective as desired.

She said there is a possibility that the influenza strain they've put in the vaccine this year "may not be a good match," but it's not definitive at this point.

"We are still wanting people to get the vaccine, simply because there are still some strains that can be prevented."

Khan said there is also an intranasal spray version of the vaccine for those who don't want the needle.

To relieve the emergency departments across the city, Bourns and Khan advise people to focus on getting rest and lots of fluids, rather than visiting emergency rooms immediately.

It's only when you begin to have difficulty breathing and retaining fluids, or if it's a toddler less than three-months old with a high fever, should the emergency department be the first destination.

"We do generally know that emergency rooms are generally busier over the holidays," said Bourns. "Flu season can set an extra burden on emergency department."


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