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Area hospitals taking protective measures against the flu

REGION — The number of confirmed flu deaths this year has already surpassed the total of flu deaths from last year.

During 2012-13 there were a reported 106 deaths confirmed during the influenza season. So far this year, the CDPH is reporting 147 deaths from the flu — that according to the latest numbers released on Jan. 31. And there are still 44 additional deaths under investigation that haven’t been confirmed.

But during a previous conference call with the media, Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist, said that during their reporting period on Jan. 24, there was a decrease in the reports for both outpatient visits and hospitalizations for influenza.

Even so, local hospitals have been taking preventative measures to help keep the virus from spreading further.

Earlier this month, all of Scripps hospitals implemented a visitor restriction policy. All visitors are being screened for flu-like symptoms. And children 14 years and younger won’t be allowed in the hospital unless they are receiving treatment or have appointments.

Scripps has had this restriction policy in place since 2009, according to Scripps Chief Medical Officer James LaBelle, M.D.

Those restrictions will remain in effect until they see the prevalence of the disease decrease in the community, he said.

The hospital has also taken measures to have employees receive flu vaccinations. Employees that haven’t been vaccinated wear masks. That’s something the hospital didn’t do last year because of the aggressive nature of the virus this time around.

Bobette Brown, public relations person for Palomar Health, said their hospital hasn’t gone to the more extreme regulations as Scripps and UCSD have done with limiting visitors, but they did require all staff to get flu shots

“And if they did not get a flu shot, then it is mandatory that they wear a mask in the hospital,” Brown said.

The H1N1 strain of flu is the most prominent variety now circulating.

During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, it tended to affect the younger to middle-aged population. LaBelle said they’re tending to see that again this year.

The 2009 pandemic, particularly, has set the bar for the procedures and policies that we have put in place, thus far, Brown said.

While LaBelle said that the amount of people coming in with the flu hasn’t been beyond Scripps’ capacities as it has in other flu seasons.

“But what we’re seeing is a greater severity of illness in the patients that are sick from this particular brand of flu,” he added.

Tri-City has definitely seen an increase in the amount of patients coming in with flu-like symptoms, according to Dr. Cary Mells, chairman of the department of emergency medicine.

They increased staff on the hospital side, he said.

“There’s a very active and aggressive immunization program that goes on in the fall for all employees as well as the community, and as well as all doctors,” Mells said. “That’s the primary preventative measure, but then during flu season itself, it’s really about educating the public when they come in that they need to wear masks, if they’re sick. And our nurses are all trained to place masks on patients when they have symptoms that might suggest the flu,” Mells said.

The CDPH continues to urge people that haven’t received the flu vaccine to get one. The cost of a typical vaccine ranges from $15 to $30, and the vaccine supply remains high.

The county does have a plan that includes several tiers that get activated that allows the hospitals, in a coordinated fashion, to manage the resources. LaBelle added that those actions could include canceling elective surgeries to free up beds in the hospital — something he called a more Draconian measure, which they’re nowhere near.

Scripps does have a system-wide task force comprised of prevention specialists and infectious disease doctors in place that actively monitor and are responsible for accelerating measures if things worsen or deescalating if it improves, LaBelle said.