News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 11, 2013

This year’s flu strain impacting Wabash Valley

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A statewide surge of influenza cases has local hospitals urging caution as officials warn the season isn’t over yet.

Union Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Bolinger issued a statement on behalf of that facility Thursday afternoon, advising the public to use discretion when considering their visits to patients. Those visitors who are themselves experiencing symptoms, or feel they might be ill, place sick patients at risk, he pointed out, adding that if visitation is necessary, guests are asked to sanitize their hands and wear protective masks as provided at the hospital entrances.

The hospital was at capacity Wednesday with high numbers again Thursday, he said.

Ann Marie Foote, director of communications at Terre Haute Regional Hospital, said that facility is asking visitors to use “good judgment” as well. Sanitizing agents and other precautionary items are available at their entrances too, and she reiterated health advice being issued across the state as more high levels of influenza plague the Midwest.

“Wash your hands, get plenty of rest and keep yourself hydrated,” she said, noting the hospital had no cases of influenza in December of 2011, but 41 just last month. To date, the hospital has had 11 cases this year, she said.

“It’s not too late to get them,” she said of flu shots, encouraging area residents to call their physician or pharmacy.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s FluView website, Indiana is in the middle of a cross-country swath of “high activity level” for influenza reports. Neighboring states Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are also experiencing high numbers as part of a belt which extends from New York to Florida, Virginia to Nevada’s eastern border.

Jennifer Hurtubise, director of communications at the Indiana Hospital Association, said their organization has not yet tabulated admission or emergency department statistics for January, but the statewide spike in cases is observable through the Indiana State Department of Health’s weekly report system.

That agency is showing an approximate 5-percent increase in emergency department visits and 7-percent increase in outpatient visits due to “influenza-like illness,” she stated in an e-mail, adding reports of “influenza-like illnesses are nearing what have been peak levels during moderately severe seasons.”

According to the ISDH Weekly Influenza Report, three adult influenza-associated deaths were officially reported in the first week of January, with a total of 10 such deaths reported for the entire 2012-2013 season. All influenza-associated deaths are to be reported to the health department within 72 hours of knowledge of death, and the ISDH does not report the number of deaths in each county until at least five deaths have occurred there, the report states.

Vigo County Health Department spokeswoman Sydney Elliott said given the immediacy of the time frame, specific local influenza numbers are tough to get, but the number of patients in the hospitals is a good measure of severity.

“It’s definitely getting worse, and it typically peaks in February, but it’s peaking now,” she said, noting the agency has issued a higher volume of flu shots than normal for this time of year. A limited number of shots remain at present but the agency is already ordering more. Individuals wishing to get a flu shot through the county should call for an appointment at 812-462-3431.

According to Bolinger, Union Hospital maintains approximately 340 beds, 300 of which are designated as medical beds for admitted patients. Wednesday the hospital had 307 patients in beds, compared to a normal volume of 250.

“We’ve had a marked increase in volume in our emergency room in just the last two weeks,” he said, adding the admission rate from the emergency room has jumped to 40 percent from a normal level 20 percent.

“It’s extremely important to get a flu shot, and it’s not too late to get a flu shot,” he said, emphasizing that influenza season still has another month to run its course.

Terms like “flu,” “influenza” and “bug” get used interchangeably in common discourse, he said, but the differences are both significant and serious. Influenza is a severe respiratory illness which can accompany a fever, body aches and last up to three weeks and needs to be diagnosed as such.

“True influenza, most people have never experienced it,” he said. “I’m guessing we have another four to six weeks of flu season.”

Whereas healthy adults can typically fight off influenza, individuals in high-risk categories can be damaged, fall into pneumonia, or perhaps even die, he said. Young children, the elderly, diabetics, and individuals on certain heart, lung or arthritis medications are among those at risk.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or