Flu season hits hospitals hard

The flu has had hard-hitting effects on the Northern Shenandoah Valley, and health care professionals have warned area residents to do their part in helping not to spread the virus.

Shenandoah Memorial Hospital and Winchester Medical Center, which have announced critical care diversions this week while dealing with a surge of patients in emergency departments, were back to normal operating procedures by New Year’s Eve. But numbers are still higher than usual, said Floyd Heater, president of Shenandoah Memorial Hospital.

“We haven’t faced that kind of day in quite some time,” he said.

After a slow start to flu season, April McClain, nursing director of the emergency department at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital in Woodstock, said Monday might have been a particularly bad day.

“It got in the community and hit a little harder than normal,” she said.

Winchester Medical Center reported 223 confirmed flu patients between Dec. 1 and 30, and Warren County Memorial in Front Royal reported 48 flu patients during that time, said Valley Health Public Relations Manager Carol Weare.

Between about Dec. 20 to 30, 60 patients at Shenandoah were diagnosed with the flu, McClain said.

“Volumes were up compared to normal,” she said, but added it was nothing the hospital couldn’t handle.

The hospital diverted non-critical patients to other units or treatment locations for four hours Monday, and added six minor care beds to its 12-bed emergency department so it could treat more critical patients and those with severe symptoms of flu.

By evening, the diversion call had ended, and she attributed the “wonderful demonstration of teamwork” by the entire staff, including customer service and cleaning staff, in helping ease the swell of patients.

“I think they handled it well,” she said.

In Winchester, the surge of flu patients caused a one-hour critical care divert, said Anne Whiteside, vice president of nursing for Winchester Medical Center.

Some patients the emergency department admits no matter how many other critical patients are there, she said, including heart attack or stroke patients.

“[A critical care divert] doesn’t stop the care of patients to the community,” she said.

“[Divert] messaging is just to show that we have pressure on our capacity,” she said.

It’s a sign of the rising tide, she said.

“I would say that flu is something that we expected and we prepare for,” she said. The hospital monitors alerts on its patient numbers four times a day, so she said it’s difficult to make predictions for how the flu might affect the hospital in coming days or weeks.

“Sometimes we are right on the mark and can anticipate the peaking,” she said. “… To a certain extent this is exactly what we expected.”

Symptoms of flu this year are no different than they usually are, and good habits to avoid getting sick include proper health practices like covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands regularly and not working or visiting with friends and family if you’re already sick, she said.

“Obviously it’s a peak season, but it doesn’t feel any different.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com