The flu season is off to an early and deadly start in Vermont. Officials say three Vermonters have died from the flu. They were all adults. And the number of flu cases is up dramatically statewide. Many hospitals are now at full capacity and officials worry about the long-term availability of beds.
You might call it the morning calm before the afternoon storm in the Fletcher Allen Health Care emergency room. Like other medical facilities around the country, Vermont's largest hospital is swamped with flu patients, who are coming into the emergency room on a daily basis.
"We have had 80 cases that we have tested and know have the flu, but we've literally seen hundreds of other patients who we haven't tested but were very confident they have the flu and for reasons are able to go home and don't require testing," said Dr. Stephen Leffler of FAHC.
The only patients being tested at the Burlington hospital are those who are admitted, and those most vulnerable to serious illnesses. On a statewide level, Vermont health officials say primary care providers are also reporting a surge in flu-like illness.
"We're seeing a big jump in the percentage of people going to providers for flu-like illness. It doesn't mean they all have the flu, but it's a good proxy measure for how much flu activity is out there and we are seeing big jumps in Vermont and the numbers have been jumping for the last few weeks," said Patsy Kelso of the Vermont Health Department.
Kelso says the percentage has gone from a normal 2-3 percent during peak season to 7 percent. The primary strain confirmed is H3N2, which appears to be causing more severe illness in some. However, it is one of the three strains covered in this year's flu vaccine. Kelso says some protection is better than none, because even if you do get the flu after being vaccinated, your symptoms will most likely be less severe.
As for the future, Kelso said, "We don't know if we've peaked yet. We have continue to increase. We may flatten out and stay where we are now for several weeks. We'll just have to wait and see."
And that's the unknown that worries hospital officials, like Leffler. Earlier this week, there were few beds to be found.
"We knew as I was going home that night that we were at capacity, Dartmouth was at capacity, Albany was at capacity, Central Vermont was at capacity, Plattsburgh was at capacity and some of the other small emergency departments that would normally transfer to us-- we didn't really have a bed to put them in. We were already starting to back up in our emergency department," Leffler said.
Leffler says that situation poses big problems in the long-term.
"For a couple of days we can work our way through. Three months scares me," he said.
Just one more complication in a flu season that's sweeping the nation ahead of schedule.
Some patients are being treated with the anti-viral medication called Tamiflu. While some states are reporting shortages of that drug, Leffler says that is not the case in Vermont. There is no shortage of Tamiflu at this time.
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