- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Sniffling, achy people suffering from the flu are crowding hospital emergency rooms throughout the country, creating long waits in the ER and frustrating doctors who can do little more than treat the symptoms.

Hospitals in Arizona and North Carolina report patients swamping pediatric emergency rooms. Health departments are scrambling to get vaccines. Paper masks are being handed out in waiting rooms in Rhode Island and Tennessee.

The ER at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville has seen a sharp increase in flu patients — even though doctors try to discourage most flu patients from visiting the emergency room.

“In most cases the patient faces increased wait times, and then they’re told they have a viral illness and should go home,” Vanderbilt spokesman John Howser said. “There’s no treatment that will make flu go away.”

Some flu patients show up in emergency rooms because they don’t have a primary care doctor; others go to the ER because they are frightened by news reports of widespread influenza activity in 24 states.

The government’s best estimate suggests some 92 children under age 5 die from flu annually. So far this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received reports of about three dozen deaths among children of all ages.

In Phoenix, patients seeking care for the flu have doubled at the pediatric emergency room in Maricopa Medical Center. Nearby, Good Samaritan Regional also reported a 50 percent increase.

“It’s been worse because it seems to have hit very quickly,” said Dr. Stephen Murphey, an emergency room staffer at Good Samaritan. “Generally in the past, we’ve seen a gradual progression.”

The wait in some emergency rooms can be up to eight hours at peak times, Dr. Murphey said.

Instead of going to the ER, “we would recommend that they contact their family doctor,” Dr. Murphey said. “If they are unable to do that, then, yes, we’re here and we’re going to do the best we can, realizing that the ER is very busy.”

The flood of patients is creating more problems than just long lines. Doctors say there is a danger that ER waiting rooms can become a place where the virus spreads.

“When a large number of patients come in contact with each other in a concentrated area, there’s a significantly higher risk of contracting the illness,” said Dr. Barry Gilmore, assistant medical director of emergency services at Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis.

To prevent that, Baptist Hospital in Nashville, Williamson Medical Center in nearby Franklin, and Rhode Island Hospital in Providence are passing out paper masks to patients in their waiting rooms.

Doctors may be frustrated by some patients who are needlessly clogging their emergency rooms, but others need to be there. Infants, children and older people are vulnerable to the flu, which kills an average of 36,000 Americans a year.

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