Tallahassee hospitals grappling with worst flu season in 10 years

Tallahassee hospitals have seen a rise in patients with flu symptoms, in what some are calling the worst flu season in a decade.

“The season hit us earlier than last year,” said Dr. Joseph Mazziotta, a family medicine physician at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare. “It’s the worst we’ve had in 10 years. What we’re experiencing here is being mirrored all over the country … and above normal.

“The volume is up across the board.”

This year's flu season is widespread nationwide — and has already killed 20 children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. So far Florida has not declared a state of emergency, unlike neighboring Alabama, where emergency rooms have begun restricting visitors.

This year, it appears we are seeing some strains that weren’t included in the annual flu vaccine, Mazziotta said. The CDC and the World Health Organization decide which strains of flu go into the vaccine, he said.

"At best, it’s an educated guess," he said.

Leon County Schools is taking precautions to avoid outbreaks. Alan Cox, an assistant superintendent who oversees health services for the district, said if a student's temperature reached 100 degrees or more, he or she is sent home immediately per county policy.

"We tell our parents to keep their children home" if they're sick, Cox said.

Allison Castillo, a nurse and director of emergency services at Capital Regional Medical Center, says the hospital has been seeing between 30 and 40 patients per day with a chief complaint of flu, out of an average 250 patients.

The virus brings symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, the CDC explains.

If those symptoms are exhibited, patients can simply call their physician and not necessarily come into the emergency room, said Dr. Sam Ashoo, an emergency medicine specialist at TMH.

But some people, such as the elderly and those with respiratory conditions, are at risk of complications.

If a patient is suffering from shortness of breath, chest pain and difficulty breathing — those symptoms could signal complications from the flu, Ashoo said. A visit to the emergency room can be in order.

The Florida Department of Health estimates between 15 and 40 percent of the population annually could develop illness from influenza. For those who haven’t had flu shots yet, it is not too late.

This year it appears we are seeing some strains that were left out of the vaccine, Mazziotta explained. But getting a flu vaccine could still be helpful, protecting "against a serious case of influenza and pneumonia," he said.

He advises avoiding large crowds, especially for people with risk factors, as well as frequent hand washing or sanitizing throughout the day.

Along with flu vaccinations, the CDC offers several tips for preventing the flu:

1. Avoid close contact.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.

2. Stay home when you are sick.

If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. This will help prevent spreading your illness to others.

3. Cover your mouth and nose.

Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.

4. Clean your hands.

Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

5. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.

6. Practice other good health habits.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home, work or school, especially when someone is ill. Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

 Jodie Strong, the nurse manager at TMH's Family Medicine Residency Program, demonstrates the processing of a rapid flu detection test. These tests, administered to patients with flu-like symptoms, can produce results in less than 15 minutes. (Photo: Hali Tauxe/Democrat)

Jodie Strong, the nurse manager at TMH's Family Medicine Residency Program, demonstrates the processing of a rapid flu detection test. These tests, administered to patients with flu-like symptoms, can produce results in less than 15 minutes. (Photo: Hali Tauxe/Democrat)