Saying its emergency department is becoming "overwhelmed" with flu patients, Midtown Medical Center's emergency department announced the opening of an external "influenza clinic" in a white trailer near its pediatric emergency entrance.
The hospital says it is treating as many as 100 people a day just for flu-like illness, and saw an all-time high of 9,531 patient encounters in January - more than 300 people every day.
"Over the past month, Midtown Medical Center leadership has reviewed the trends for Influenza-like Illness in Emergency Services and throughout the State of Georgia. We have made the decision to bring in a modular building and begin treating ILI adult and pediatric patients in this separate space to allow for better services to all our patients," Columbus Regional Health said in a news release.
The center is similar to what many other hospitals have been forced to do across the country, including Grady Memorial in Atlanta, which installed a portable emergency department in late January to help deal with the overload of patients.
The official death toll from flu in Georgia stands at 66, including several people younger than 18. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Georgia, said this year's brutal flu season now equals the severity of the swine flu pandemic of 2009.
The hospital said flu season has not yet peaked, either. Although death rates have fallen in the last few weeks, illness rates are still rising.
Scientists measure the spread and severity of the flu by looking at the percentage of doctor's visits that are for flu or flu-like illnesses. Normally for this time of year, the national average is a little more than 2 percent of visits. This year, it has skyrocketed to 7.7 percent of visits.
In Georgia, it's worse. A little less than two percent of visits are normally for flu or flu-related illness. This year, it's nearly 16 percent, or about eight times the average.
Columbus Regional said it was treating patients in the portable clinic for three reasons: because the department was becoming flooded with flu patients, because flu patients need to be separated from other patients to prevent dangerous infections, and because treatment can be given more quickly if there is a specific, streamline treatment plan just for flu-like illness.
Beginning Friday, Feb. 16, flu patients ages 2-64 will be treated in the portable clinic in the parking lot from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
"We will continue with this strategy until the flu season peaks and ILI symptom patients return to normal levels," the hospital said.
Public health officials are still encouraging people to get the flu shot if they haven't, both because flu is expected to remain active for at least several more weeks and because other strains of flu are appearing with greater frequency.
“Flu is something we face every year,” said Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. J. Patrick O’Neal. “It’s not the common cold. It’s something to be reckoned with. It’s terribly important for the public to understand that the best protection we have is the seasonal flu shot.”
’Neal said it was difficult to predict how effective the flu shot is while the season is occurring but said even if it isn’t perfect, it will still provide protection from other strains of the flu and could moderate some of the symptoms of a strain that isn’t completely prevented.
Flu symptoms can be similar to a less-serious illness like the common cold, ranging from a sore throat and runny nose to vomiting, body aches, fevers, cough and extreme tiredness. Here are some tips on telling the difference between the flu and a cold.