Spike in flu cases triggers patient visits restrictions at Eastern Iowa hospitals

29 flu-related deaths reported since Oct. 1

A flu vaccine at St. Luke’s Pediatrics Clinic in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A flu vaccine at St. Luke’s Pediatrics Clinic in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Hospitals in the Corridor are cutting back on patient visits in an attempt to slow down the spread of this season’s influenza — one of the worst strains in recent years, clinicians and public health officials say.

This year’s flu virus making the rounds — H3N2, an “A” strain — has caused hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among the young and the elderly and for others most vulnerable to influenza-related complications, said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The state reported 119 flu-related hospitalizations during the week of Jan. 7 and 29 total flu-related deaths statewide since Oct. 1.

One of the most recent deaths included 34-year-old Newton resident Nikki Burtlow, who died Jan. 12.

These numbers are expected to continue to rise as the state draws closer to the flu season’s peak in the beginning of February, Quinlisk said.

“Historically in H3N2 years, such as this one, we would start to see a decline in cases around this time,” said Michael Busch, infection control coordinator at Mercy Iowa City. “However, this year it appears we are not going to be so lucky.”

Area hospitals — including both Cedar Rapids’s hospitals and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics — started limiting patient visits on Tuesday.

At Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s in Cedar Rapids, only two adults are allowed per patient room and children have been barred from visiting unless under special circumstances.

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UIHC is limiting visitors to two adults per patient, and children under the age of 14 are not permitted.

“These steps are necessary to limit any inadvertent patient exposure to influenza,” according to a joint news release from St. Luke’s and Mercy Medical Center Tuesday.

The announcement follows an influx of influenza-related hospitalizations in recent weeks, according to area hospital staff.

“It just really kind of varies by day, but it has picked up in the last two weeks,” said Lori Townsend, program manager for infection prevention at St. Luke’s.

St. Luke’s is seeing between five to 10 flu-related hospitalizations per day and between five to 10 emergency room visits a day, Townsend said.

Mercy Medical Center’s hospital, clinics and emergency department this past week have reported about 100 to 120 patients per day with influenza-like illnesses, said Mercy spokeswoman Karen Vander Sanden.

The second week of January brought nearly 40 confirmed cases to UIHC in Iowa City both in the emergency room and in inpatient units, said Dr. Jorge Salinas, UIHC hospital epidemiologist.

Salinas said the hospital has seen more confirmed cases this year than during the same time period in 2017.

Mercy Iowa City, however, has elected not to restrict patient visits.

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“We are not seeing in-house transmission of influenza so are not concerned at this point,” the hospital’s Busch said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there have been nearly 6,500 influenza-related hospitalizations since Oct. 1 nationwide, with an overall rate of nearly 23 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

Last season, the CDC says there were more than 6,800 influenza-related hospitalizations between Oct. 1, 2016, through Feb. 4, 2017.

Quinlisk of the Iowa Department of Public Health encourages anyone who has not had a flu shot to get one. The CDC has found this year’s vaccine is about 30 percent effective at preventing people from needing to see a doctor, she said.

So far, Quinlisk said she has not heard of any health care provider running low on vaccines.

The very young or very old, along with those with a high risk condition — such as cardiac or respiratory conditions — should see a doctor as soon as symptoms start, Quinlisk added.

Anyone who is typically healthy and does not have any of these risk factors are encouraged to stay home, Quinlisk said.

l Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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