Q & A: What You Need to Know About Flu Season

Northwestern Medicine
Health and Wellness January 15, 2013
A female treating her flu symptomsFlu cases have increased significantly over the last month in our hospitals, a trend that also is evident locally and nationally. With nearly 400 inpatient cases, Northwestern Memorial has already treated more patients with flu since September 1 than were treated all of last season. Similarly, Northwestern Lake Forest has treated approximately 250 cases. In Chicago during the one-week period ending December 31, the most recent data available, the Chicago Department of Public Health reported more than 250 flu cases. Nationally, the proportion of Americans seeing their healthcare provider for flu-like illness has doubled over the past four weeks and most states are reporting widespread flu activity.

Vaccination is the best defense against getting and spreading the flu. “Flu can be a serious illness. It can cause days of misery, lost work and family time and even hospital admission. Vaccination is safe and effective and it protects you and your family,” says Cindy Barnard, director of Quality Strategies.

Northwestern Memorial Healthcare moved to a mandatory flu prevention program in 2013 that requires vaccination to reduce the risk of flu transmission to our patients and one another along with the wearing of masks for those who are unable to be vaccinated. Northwestern Memorial has joined a number of healthcare institutions nationwide in finding solutions to help keep patients safe.

Health departments and others predict the flu season will continue to increase in severity. The following information about this flu season is compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Public Health departments and our own experts.

What is unique about this year’s flu season?

“The H3N2 strain is the predominant strain this year and historically it has been more severe than other strains,” says Maureen Bolon, MD, medical director for Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Prevention at Northwestern Memorial and associate professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We are seeing more cases than we would normally see this early in the season. Some of these cases have been more severe as evidenced by hospitalizations and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions.”

During the week ending January 12, 61 percent of flu cases at Northwestern Memorial were inpatients and 4.5 percent of those were sick enough to require care in an ICU. Health experts continue to say this year’s vaccine is a good match for the flu strains that have been circulating and it is not too late to get your shot.

How have our hospitals been impacted?

Our Emergency Departments (ED) and physician offices have reported seeing a significant number of flu cases and in addition, flu-related hospital and ICU admissions are up considerably from last year. With the high number of cases we are focused on preventing the spread of flu among our patients, employees and visitors. 

In the Emergency Department, when patients come in with flu symptoms we place them in a private area and observe precautions that are in place to prevent transmission to others.  Healthcare staff wear masks when treating these patients and the patients wear masks when transported to other areas of the hospital.

What can I do to stay healthy?

Get vaccinated. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and your family.

Even if you have been vaccinated, it is important to remember to stay home if you don’t feel well, as flu is not the only transmissible disease.

Remember to clean your hands and cover your cough with a tissue or your sleeve. The flu virus can live in the air and on surfaces for up to eight hours outside of the body.

For more information on this year’s flu season and tips to stay healthy, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu page.

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