Local flu cases continue to rise

Jan. 07, 2013 @ 05:39 PM

The number of patients admitted to Duke Hospital with the flu has more than doubled over the past two weeks.

The sharp rise in cases mirrors what hospitals across the state are seeing — an early-season spike in the number of patients suffering from influenza.

“We’re seeing this all across the state, and even the nation,” said Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke and the head of the hospital’s preparedness and response center. “This is the busiest it’s been since 2009 — and that was the pandemic year.”

And those actually admitted to the hospital, he added, “are just the tip of the iceberg.”

A month ago, only three patients had been admitted to Duke because of the flu. That rose to 16 the week of Dec. 15 and then 23 just before Christmas. Last week, the total rose to 33 patients. 

To be admitted as an in-patient, Wolfe noted, “people have got to be fairly sick. They come to the emergency department and they are really incapable of going home.”

Those admitted generally would have high fevers and might require respiratory support. They would be particularly at risk if they have underlying lung disease, are transplant recipients or cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

“They are either acutely sick or have the potential of getting really sick,” Wolfe said.

In 2009, many got sick from the flu, but those cases were spread out over the winter season. “This year, it’s all happening in such a hurry,” Wolfe said. “It’s more in a big wave.”

And it’s all happening very early.

Usually, the peak of flu season isn’t until the end of January or beginning of February. “We’re about 6-8 weeks earlier than usual,” Wolfe said, “What that means is, it’s still on the rise. We’re likely to see the number of cases continue to increase.”

What’s also worrisome is that flu cases generally track with cold weather.          “Typically, we get the most cases when the temperatures have dropped to their lowest,” Wolfe said. “But we really haven’t had much of a winter yet and the temperatures have been pretty mild.”

Because of the increase in cases, Duke and its affiliated hospitals have restricted visiting to the facilities. Only family members or designated caregivers over the age of 18 who have no flu-like symptoms are allowed to visit.

Those restrictions were put in place two weeks ago and officials said Monday that they are being evaluated regularly to determine when they can be lifted.