Flu puts strain on medical resources across region
Last updated 12/20/2022 at Noon
The flu outbreak in Central Oregon is taxing health care facilities as cases skyrocket and more patients flood emergency departments and urgent care. We are in Week 48 of the flu year, and it’s disrupting the system, according to Dr. Cynthia Maree, St. Charles Health System infectious disease medical director.
“Influenza numbers are rising rapidly,” she said. “Our hospitals are already strained. We’re seeing the number of visits going up to the emergency department and urgent care.”
The flu season runs from October to May and the positivity rates being seen are more typical of January. More taxing is the number of pediatric RSV — respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus, acommon respiratory virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms.
Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults. RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia (infection of the lungs) in children younger than one year of age in the United States.
Nearly all children have been infected by RSV at one time or another, but cases requiring hospitalization are on the rise, in some cases dramatically. St. Charles has already air-transferred seven cases to other pediatric ICU facilities. There are only 40 such beds statewide, and all but four were taken last week with RSV patients.
Responding to strained hospitals, Governor Kate Brown issued a state of emergency on November 14 due to the rise of RSV cases in children under age two.
Like COVID-19, flu and RSV cause numerous mild infections, but can cause more serious illness leading to hospitalization for very young children, pregnant people, adults 65 and up, and the immunocompromised.
In the most recent week, nearly 4,500 persons in Oregon tested positive for flu, about 32 percent of the total tested. Very few are tested, with most not seeking treatment or relief, relying on commonsense therapies such as staying at home, drinking lots of fluids, and taking over-the-counter pain and fever reducers.
Similar to the majority of diseases recorded in Oregon, Deschutes County is faring somewhat better than other populated areas. In week 48, of the 1,651 tested only 25.9 percent were positive for flu “A” as compared to 40.0 percent in the Columbia Gorge and 30.4 percent in the Willamette Valley.
That’s of little comfort to anybody hospitalized or in the waiting room of the emergency department or urgent care.
Close to 90 percent of outbreaks are in a school or day care setting, per data from Oregon Health Authority (OHA). The same OHA reports that just over 5 percent of all emergency visits to hospitals are flu-related this year, four times as many as the 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 flu season.
There were 57 ER visits last week in Deschutes County, up from 44 the week before.
No surprise, say Oregon health officials. Those getting their flu shot this season are down. Peak week is usually the second week of October. This year saw about 125,000 get their flu shot that week as compared to 150,000 last season and 220,000 in 2020, the year of COVID.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said at a news briefing last Monday that this year’s flu shot appears to be “a very good match” to the circulating strains. However, she noted that flu vaccinations are lagging behind the pace of previous years.
Overall vaccine skepticism has increased since the onset of COVID. Per the CDC, last year in Oregon only 51.4 percent of the age-appropriate population received an influenza vaccine.
Through the end of this October, CDC data shows that vaccinations for pregnant women, a group that is more vulnerable to severe illness from influenza, are down about 12 percent from the same point in 2021.
Statistically, flu risk is reduced up to 60 percent by vaccine. Influenza is the only respiratory virus preventable by vaccination.
Oregon ranks “high” on the national epidemic map tracked by the CDC. Neighboring California and Idaho are in worse shape however, and Washington state is at the highest level of reporting. The best place to be to avoid the flu — Vermont, followed by Wisconsin and Alaska.