Surry hospital restricts visitors because of flu

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Northern Hospital of Surry County (Google maps)

MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — Northern Hospital of Surry County on Tuesday became the first Triad hospital to begin restricting visitors as a result of the 2013-14 flu season.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported Monday that there have been at least eight flu-related deaths through Dec. 21, with half of the victims being between the ages of 25 and 49. Three deaths have occurred in Guilford County.

Zack Moore, a medical epidemiologist with the N.C. Department of Public Health, told The News & Observer of Raleigh that additional flu-related deaths occurred last week.

Flu season begins in October and usually peaks in January or February, although it can linger well into spring depending on the dominant flu subtype. The H1NI strain, also known as swine flu, has been the predominant form to date. The strain was included in the flu shot for the 2013-14 season.

Bill James, president and chief executive of Northern, said the Mount Airy hospital has experienced an increased number of flu cases in its emergency department, within the hospital and in its outpatient clinics.

Visitor restrictions typically affect people under age 18, primarily because children are often contagious before they show signs of the flu. Restricted areas include patient rooms, hospital lobbies, waiting areas and classrooms.

Exceptions are made in serious emergencies or in end-of-life situations. The policy does not apply to patients under 18 who have a scheduled procedure or need emergency care or hospitalization.

“This decision is consistent with other hospitals in the region and will most likely remain for several months until the flu rate has significantly decreased,” James said.

Officials with Forsyth, High Point Regional and Wake Forest Baptist medical centers and with Cone Health said Tuesday their hospitals have not implemented visitor restrictions. Duke University Hospital initiated restrictions Monday.

“We’re watching the influenza rates daily, and we’ll take appropriate steps to restrict visitors if needed,” Wake Forest Baptist spokesman Mac Ingraham said.

Northern began the restrictions even though there have been no confirmed flu cases in Surry, according to the State Laboratory of Public Health.

“The state lab primarily does testing for surveillance purposes on specimens from a sample of patients with influenza-like illness seen at facilities participating in the Influenza-Like Illness Network,” DHHS spokeswoman Kristi Clifford said Tuesday.

“The vast majority of influenza testing is done in provider offices, such as rapid tests, or in hospital-based or commercial laboratories. These results are not reported to the state.”

DHHS reported 59 flu-related deaths and 418 confirmed cases in North Carolina during the 2012-13 flu season. Thirty-six of those who died were 65 and older. There were 16 deaths among those ages 50 to 64, six among ages 25 to 49, and one death among those 18 to 24.

For the current flu season, there have been four deaths among those ages 25 to 49, three among ages 50 to 64 and one among those 60 and older.

Moore said the number of fatalities to date is unusual for the earlier part of the flu season. “That’s troubling because we haven’t hit the peak yet,” he said.

Eight of the 60 confirmed cases at the state lab were in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina, including three in Forsyth. All but four of those cases are the H1N1 strain.

Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist, said that he and other flu experts predict the A strains H1N1 and H3N2 will each comprise about half of this season’s cases.

Moore said all of the victims had some kind of health condition that made them more vulnerable to the flu, which is typical in flu-related deaths. Those conditions can include heart disease, asthma or a respiratory illness, diabetes, immune system problems, obesity and pregnancy. Children under age 2 also are considered at a higher risk for the flu.

No Triad hospitals had visitor restrictions during the 2012-13 flu season; Cone and High Point Regional did in 2011-12. Most Triad hospitals restricted visitors during the 2009-10 flu season as part of their response to the H1N1 epidemic.