Patients with flu symptoms causing longer waits at Marion County ERs

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INDIANAPOLIS – Wednesday was the first official day of spring, but a winter illness still lingers and is causing congestion in the waiting room at hospitals.

The Marion County Health Department said flu activity and respiratory complaints are extremely high at the 11 emergency rooms in the county and the number of patients in the ER is a concern.

“The concern is the ERs are very busy and there are people waiting and we want to focus on the critically ill to get them taken care of,” said the health department’s coordinator of immunization and infectious disease program, Melissa McMaster.

The health department tracks why patients are visiting the emergency room, and found patients going to the ER for flu and flu-like symptoms grew to 4.96 percent of all patients between March 11 and March 16. It’s the highest percentage for this flu season and the highest ever for the county in March since records were kept.

“We always think of flu as a winter illness, but we’ve certainly seen a late uptick in flu this year,” said Dr. Kimberly Chernoby, an ER physician at IU Health Methodist Hospital. “Certainly, over the last several weeks we’ve seen an increase in the number of patients presenting with either flu-like viruses or the flu itself.”

The health department reported numbers under two percent in the later part of January. Each week since, numbers have gradually grown.

“Normally, around two or three percent, we’ll go ahead and ask the hospitals to issue visitors restrictions,” McMaster said. “But at five percent now, what we’re asking is those who have mild illness seek care at their local doctor or urgent visit center.”

Chernoby said her hospital has seen anywhere from 30 to 50 people in the waiting room at a time. Those kinds of numbers are forcing some ERs to go on diversion, which limits who can get into the emergency room.

“They’ve been going on diversion,” said Chernoby. “Which means they close their doors to all ambulance traffic, and so anyone who needs to take an ambulance to the hospital actually isn’t able to go to some hospitals because of how crowded we’ve become.”

Healthcare professionals and officials aren’t sure how long the spike in the flu will last. They said it’s still not too late to get a flu shot for the year. They added patients at a higher risk to develop severe symptoms from the flu should still visit an emergency room.

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