The flu epidemic is hitting New York hard.
“We are holding 30 patients a day in the E.R. There are no beds available,” said Staten Island University Hospital South R.N. Nancy Barth-Miller.
Many hospital emergency rooms are overflowing with patients suffering from the flu, leaving hospital nurses exhausted from working double shifts. The Department of Health reports that 11,280 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza have been reported as of last week across the state, sending more than 3,600 people to the hospital.
In the past week alone, the DOH reports cases of influenza rose by 37 percent, and new cases of influenza were reported in 61 of 62 counties.
“ERs are full and people are waiting for care,” said Anne Goldman, a United Federation of Teachers vice president and chair of NYSUT’s Health Care Professionals Council.
Barth-Miller, a member of the UFT/Federation of Nurses, said the union filed arbitration this week to remedy the short staffing at the Staten Island hospital.
“We needed help before the flu hit and now we really need help,” she said. “There’s a surge of people with difficulty breathing with this cold weather, or with the flu. They are so sick they cannot be sent home. We are working very short-handed. Everybody’s run down.”
Nurses are working double shifts, and the pharmacy and housekeeping lack the staff to keep up with the demand. There were 69 incidents of short staffing from September through November, “and that was before the flu hit,” said Barth-Miller, who serves on NYSUT’s Health Care Professionals Council.
Hospitals are facing additional challenges: not enough IV bags. The bags, used to hydrate and provide medication to ill patients, have been in short supply ever since Hurricane Maria disrupted production by a major manufacturer in Puerto Rico. Much of the island is still without power, months after the hurricane hit.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people who are very sick or people who are sick with high risk of serious flu complications be treated early with flu antiviral drugs. Antiviral drugs work best when started within two days of symptoms first appearing.
The flu virus can spread through coughing and sneezing. DOH reports that influenza A(H3N2) viruses are the most common across the country, and influenza B has been the most common strain circulating in some regions of the state, including Central New York.
“The challenge with contagious disease is to prevent and minimize symptoms, control its spread, and treat it quickly as possible,” said Goldman. “As we know that includes being vaccinated, which is not a cure but helpful in some cases. Hand-washing is the best tool we have to fighting the flu. Sleep and nutrition are always vital when trying to have the individual boost their autoimmune system.”
Parents are being advised about the importance of keeping sick children home from school. Educators need to stay home when sick as well.
Melanie Cunningham, a school nurse at Salmon River Elementary School in St. Lawrence County, said more students began showing up with the flu this week, complaining of achy bodies, sore throat and fevers.
“We’re sending home newsletters telling parents of the signs and symptoms, and when to keep their child home. If they’re running a fever, they need to be free from fever at least 24 hours before coming back to school,” she said. “If it’s the flu, the child should be kept home a couple days. We recommend going to a family physician; they do a swab test.”
Corrine Tracy, a middle/high school nurse in Hunter-Tannersville, said there have been no cases of the flu reported in her district. She believes the recent extreme low temperatures have kept a lot of people indoors, preventing the spread of the flu, and she heaped praise on the school custodians.
“We have a good crew here. They do an absolute fabulous job, cleaning stairwell bannisters, door handles, light switches,” she said.
Wendy Hord, NYSUT health specialist, stressed that schools and hospitals need extra cleaning and disinfecting during the flu season.
“The protocol for addressing outbreaks of communicable diseases should be in every district’s emergency plans. School nurses play a very big role in that,” she said. “It’s important to get advice from the school nurse.”
Disinfect all high-touch areas, including:
- Gym equipment
- Keyboards and mouse
- Shared phones
Visiting nurses, who are also represented by NYSUT, care for patients in their homes who are already vulnerable.
“In home care, the patients are developing symptoms, and attempting to control exposure in the home is essential,” said Goldman.
"Influenza is a significant threat to public health, and we are strongly encouraging anyone who has not already gotten the flu vaccine to get one immediately," said DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker. "Getting vaccinated is not just about protecting yourself, it also protects people around you, including those who are more vulnerable, like babies and young children, older people, and people with certain chronic health conditions."
Follow the link to the Centers for Disease Control for more information about symptoms of the flu and how to respond.