What starts off with a cough, sore throat, or body aches has become a health care crises as influenza – commonly called the flu – is causing longer than normal delays throughout the medical community – whether in securing timely appointments and care at physician offices or in receiving immediate intervention at hospitals throughout north central Florida.
“Our two hospitals have treated 550 cases of flu in the past few weeks,” said Don Henderson, president and chief executive office of Central Florida Health – the parent organization of The Villages and Leesburg regional medical centers.
“Traditionally, the ‘ebb and flow’ of patients presenting at the ERs varies throughout the day. This difference greatly impacts how quickly we can triage walk-in patients and then provide the appropriate treatment. The large number of those arriving with flu complaints has created longer than normal wait times,” Henderson continued. “We recently enlarged our Emergency Department facilities and continue to hire more staff to help handle the increased demand for care.”
The spike in flu and influenza-like illnesses has not been confined to The Villages.
Henderson indicates that hospitals in Ocala and Leesburg also are experiencing similar, additional visits to their ERs.
Throughout the state, Florida’s Department of Health has reported 388 outbreaks of influenza and ILI since the start of the 2017-2018 season, “and that the number of deaths has been higher than expected with a majority of those deaths occurring in people aged 65 years and older.”
The general population, experiencing mild symptoms, is advised to stay home for at least 24-hours after fever is gone.
However, the Department recommends seniors, considered at high risk for complications, should contact their physician and get antiviral treatment as soon as possible.
“As people age, fever and dehydration have a greater impact on seniors,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lowenkron, The Villages Health System’s chief medical officer. “Those who have underlying lung diseases will also have greater difficulty as cough and mucus production worsen. Smokers also tend to keep respiratory infection symptoms longer. Patients who have cancer, especially if on chemotherapy, also are at higher risk.
“All our patients have access to our medical personal through our (web-based) patient portal. We have added hours for nurse triage, over the phone, to assess which patients need to come in and those who can be treated without coming in,” Dr. Lowenkron continued. “We also have a new evidence-based telephone triage protocol. Now, one out of every three callers opts for care over the phone. This can include ordering medications, if indicted.”
In some cases immediate medical intervention is a necessity. If a timely appointment with a personal physician is not available, another possibility is assistance at one of the many, nearby urgent care ‘walk-in’ clinics.
“Those who especially should see a medical professional are those with multiple medical problems, inability to take in fluids, those with cancer and flu symptoms, difficulty breathing, a fever over 102 that does not come down with medication, blue or gray color skin, confusion, or persistent vomiting,” Dr. Lowenkron said.
The Department of Health cautions that an emergency room visit may not be warranted for those who are mildly ill. In fact, it cautions that close contact with others also waiting in the ER could increase the likelihood of catching the flu from someone else.
Yet, for many the hospital option remains the only option.
As emergency departments cope with the increased demand, some patients, after their initial triage and evaluation, will require additional follow-up. Then, they must remain either in observational status or scheduled to be admitted. With many hospitals at full capacity, the results have been significant waits for a bed to become available.
The scenario of Marie O’Shea, of Summerhill, reflects the frustration of patients expecting prompt care but who have had to contend with the flu epidemic and its resulting over-demand for services with under supply of facilities.’
“The EMTs took my husband, Danny, to the (Villages’) emergency room at 1 p.m. He had pneumonia and was in extreme stress,” she recalls. “We were seen by several doctors and had the tests done, and our internist had him admitted. At 9 p.m. we were told ‘he would get the next bed.’”
The delay, from presenting at the ER to finally getting a room, took more than 24-hours.
Even though extremely frustrated, O’Shea greatly appreciated the efforts of the hospital staff.
“They did everything they could do to help. No one could stop to even take a breath.”
Thus, the dilemma faced by the Central Florida Health hospitals and their sister facilities statewide.
“The Villages and Leesburg hospitals are committed to delivering outstanding care to everyone,” said Henderson. “We also are legally-obligated not to turn away anyone who comes to our facilities seeking treatment — including those with flu-like complaints. Our goal always is to accommodate everyone appropriately and as timely as possible.”