From Staff Reports

With influenza activity in the Tri-Cities region at widespread levels, the region’s health systems are urging the public to take precautions to protect the most vulnerable members of the community.  All of the hospitals operated by Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System have put in place visitation restrictions in order to protect patients.

The health systems are asking anyone younger than 12 and anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms refrain from visiting patients in the hospital at this time.

Flu-like symptoms include cough, fever, body aches, headache, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, chills and fatigue.

During the week of Jan. 29 through Feb. 4, Mountain States hospitals recorded 86 positive flu cases. The following week, Feb. 5 through 11, that number nearly doubled to 167 positive cases. Wellmont hospitals diagnosed 60 positive flu cases from Jan. 30-Feb. 5, and the number grew to 91 cases from Feb. 6-12.

“We are definitely beginning to encounter the peak of flu season,” said Jamie Swift, Mountain States corporate director of infection prevention. “These numbers are higher than anything we saw last year; for comparison, the highest peak for Mountain States during the 2015-2016 season was 118 cases in one week. This week, we started out Sunday with 38 cases in our emergency departments, so we’re anticipating that flu activity will be even higher than last week.”

With flu actively circulating in the community, everyone is encouraged to take extra precautions to stop the spread of infection.

“Wash your hands frequently, avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes, and please – stay home if you are ill,” said Dr. Gail Stanley, an infectious disease physician at Bristol Regional Medical Center. “People can spread the flu for up to 24 hours before they start to show symptoms, and they can continue to be contagious for a full week after the onset of symptoms – sometimes even longer with children.”

Prior to implementing restricted visitation, Wellmont and Mountain States hospitals were already employing a number of other precautions, including providing masks at each entrance and registration area and designating separate waiting areas for patients experiencing fever or respiratory symptoms.

“Our emergency departments and urgent care centers are always available for people when they are vulnerable. Because of the high volumes, it is likely wait times may increase during this spike in flu-related activity,” Dr. Stanley said. “If individuals have certain health conditions (i.e., pregnancy, weakened immune systems or people with medical conditions like asthma, diabetes or lung disorders), we encourage them to contact their physician if they start to experience any symptoms.”

To further protect children in the community, Niswonger Children’s Hospital offers the following tips:

  • Children who have a fever should be kept home from school or daycare.
  • A child who has a fever that lasts longer than 72 hours should see his or her doctor.
  • If a child has difficulty breathing or looks very ill, he or she should receive medical care right away.
  • Children younger than 2 with chronic medical conditions like asthma should see their doctor at the first sign of a flu-like illness.
  • Children should not go back to school or daycare until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without the help of fever-reducing medication.

For both children and adults, it’s not too late to get a flu vaccine, Swift said.

“The vaccine is still strongly recommended, especially for vulnerable populations like children, pregnant women and the elderly,” she said. “Even if you catch the flu before the vaccine has a chance to take full effect, it can still lessen the severity of your illness and hopefully prevent serious complications.”