Flu, stomach virus keep hospitals busy

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The flu continues to spread throughout the state, keeping area hospitals busy as they handle one of the worst flu seasons in years.

And now some are dealing with a stomach virus as well.

“We’ve seen a surge in inpatients here recently,” said Randall Dustin, spokesman for Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. “There has been a significant increase in the number of inpatients here, as well as in the emergency department.”

Although CMMC has not reached full capacity, Dustin said, “It’s getting tight.”

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Maine’s flu season started early and is more severe than in years past. That’s due in part to the strain of virus circulating. Since 2009, the predominant flu strain has been H1N1. This year, the principal strain is H3N2. Although the flu vaccine protects against both, plus a third strain, people who don’t get vaccinated don’t have a good natural immunity to this year’s predominant strain because it hasn’t been around in a while, experts say.

State epidemiologist Stephen Sears said Friday that the early-arriving flu is “reaching epidemic proportions” and there’s no sign that it has reached its peak. There have been more than 70 reported outbreaks in Maine and the disease claimed the life of an otherwise healthy elementary school-aged child, reported in December.

Sears said virtually all hospitals are near capacity but are managing to keep a few empty beds. He urged people not to visit hospitals or go to work if they’re sick.

In Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, hospital officials say they have been busy with flu patients for at least the past two or three weeks. 

“We were full the other day,” said Anne Marie Mahar, a registered nurse who deals with infection prevention for 25-bed Rumford Hospital. “This is my third flu season doing the job. I’ve never seen it like this, at all.”

Imad Durra, an infectious disease doctor at CMMC, said the number of cases has been “through the roof.”

“This year the influenza season is definitely more serious than any other year in recent memory,” he said. “I think the last time it was that serious was about 10 years ago.”

Some area hospitals, including CMMC, have started to see a decline in cases in recent days, though they remain very busy and believe numbers could jump again. Other hospitals are as busy, or busier, than they have been all season. 

Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington had 76 confirmed cases of flu in December. It has had 32 in just the first 10 days of January.

Across the area, patients are arriving at emergency rooms with fever, chills and aches. Patients may be admitted if they are elderly, have an underlying medical condition or develop complications. Area hospitals have increasingly seen cases of pneumonia and bronchitis, along with the flu or developing afterward.

And then there’s the stomach virus.

According to a report released last week, the state CDC has seen 16 outbreaks of Norovirus since November. The virus is easily spread through contact with a person who is sick or who has been sick in the past two to five days, by eating food prepared by someone who is sick or by touching contaminated surfaces. 

CMMC, St. Mary’s Regional Hospital in Lewiston and Franklin Memorial in Farmington have all seen cases of the virus. At CMMC, in particular, the stomach virus has added to the number of patients filling the hospital.

“It’s a multi-variable thing,” Dustin said.

Because of the flu and other illnesses this season, many hospitals and nursing homes are asking potential visitors to stay home if they feel sick or, at least, wear a mask while visiting.

Doctors also urge those who aren’t sick to wash their hands frequently and to get a flu shot. Although not 100 percent effective, the shot will prevent about 70 percent of people from getting the flu, doctors said, and others will likely experience a less severe form of the flu. 

Sears said the vaccine supply is holding up in Maine, even though there have been some spot shortages. He said state and private pharmacies appear to have adequate supply for the time being.

It takes days 10 days to two weeks for the vaccine to provide protection.

“It’s not too late to get your flu shot,” said Jennifer Radel, spokeswoman at St. Mary’s. 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

ltice@sunjournal.com

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