January is normally a slow time at the Wyoming Medical Center emergency room. Not this year.
Visits to the ER have spiked, thanks in part to a flood of flu cases. Influenza activity has risen sharply across Wyoming and is now at levels higher than at any point since the 2009 swine flu pandemic, health officials say.
“Flu is rampant,” Natrona County Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell said. “I have not seen it slow down yet. We’re at a peak.”
Influenza activity varies by year, and the season can peak at different times. This season, flu activity jumped in December and continued into January at higher-than-normal levels, state health figures show.
“We are seeing a ton,” Dowell told the county health board this week. “Last year, we had a very small amount in March and April. You just can’t be sure. It has a lot to do with the particular strain and how susceptible the population is.”
Dowell, who runs an infectious disease practice in Casper, expects flu
activity will calm down in the next week or two. It’s possible that a second spike might occur, but the majority of cases are happening now, he told the health board.
While most people get through the flu without medical treatment, the viral infection can cause serious illness, particularly in older adults and the very young. It’s responsible for thousands of deaths each year in the United States.
The current surge has resulted in a number of hospitalizations at Wyoming Medical Center, said Dr. Ron Iverson, who works in the emergency room at the Casper hospital. Many of the patients have been elderly, but Iverson said he’s also admitted young people and a pregnant woman.
“They just feel horrible,” he said. “Often, what they need is IV fluids. They get dehydrated.”
On a normal day, the WMC emergency department treats between 100 and 110 patients. Lately, it’s experienced days with more than 140 visitors, Iverson said. Patients have come in with body aches, fever, coughs and sometimes nausea.
The surge in patients started in mid-December, Iverson said. The last two weeks of 2012 were particularly bad.
“This is the worst flu I’ve seen in years,” said Iverson, who’s worked in the emergency room for 27 years.
Flu vaccine is still available in Wyoming, and even though the flu season is already in full swing, State Epidemiologist Dr. Tracy Murphy still recommends people get immunized. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to offer protection.
Staying home when ill and simple hand washing can also prevent the virus from spreading. Those who do get sick should rest and drink plenty of liquids, Murphy said.