By James Niedzinski
---- — GLOUCESTER — The flu is in season. And it’s dealing a heavier than usual hit to people across Cape Ann and beyond.
Both Gloucester and area health officials are urging residents to take stiff precautions, with staff and space at Addison Gilbert Hospital stretched thin.
Dr. Lucas Wolf, chief of infection control at Beverly and Addison Gilbert Hospitals, said that, as of Thursday, every room in both of the Lahey Health facilities — 44 at Addison Gilbert and 227 in Beverly — were occupied, and a majority of patients are those with flu or flu-like symptoms.
Because of that, Wolf said, some elective surgeries — those not seen as urgent — have been postponed in Beverly until more rooms are available.
With every room in use, hospital staffers at both facilities are taking precautions to isolate patients with the flu, in an effort to stop the spread of the virus within hospital walls.
”We are filling them (beds) as fast as patients are discharged, sometimes faster,” Ruth George, the nurse manager of the emergency department at Addison Gilbert Hospital said. She said that, when possible, influenza patients are being paired in the same room, and two-bed rooms are being made into single rooms in an attempt to limit influenza patients’ exposure to others without the virus.
Also, in an effort to make vaccinates more accessible to residents, another free clinic has been scheduled for Addison Gilbert Hospital. On Tuesday, from 9 to 11 a.m., Gloucester Health Department officials will be hosting the free clinic inside the cafe of the hospital. The clinic is available to anyone age six months old or older, and there is no pre-registration required.
The clinic is open to everyone, not just residents of Gloucester, officials said.
At the hospitals, quick swab tests are being done on most patients, but if somebody has a manageable case of the virus, he or she is being discharged if deemed healthy enough to return home.
Addison Gilbert Hospital officials also changed the visitation policy as of Wednesday to limit exposure to hospital patients. Any visitor who is a minor cannot visit inpatient units, while any visitors with flu-like symptoms are being prohibited from entering inpatient units as well.
Also, all healthy visitors are limited to entering a patient’s room at two at time, and patients going to visit an outpatient with flu-like symptoms will be required to wear a protective mask.
Wolf said there are two major aspects which make this intense flu season stand out.
Last year, he said, was an “exceptionally mild” year for flu cases throughout Cape Ann. “We were lulled into complacency,” he said about the flu concerns last year, adding that this year’s numbers are only slightly above average.
However, the influenza A strain know as H3N2 is resulting in more hospitalizations due to worsening symptoms, said Gloucester Public Health Nurse Chassea Robinson.
According to Robinson, about 20 cases of influenza have been recorded at the hospital, but she said that number is just the tip of the iceberg. She said that, more often than not, people with flu-like symptoms will just stay home and take care of themselves rather than go to a hospital.
Robinson said that, through working with health departments, school departments and neighboring towns, about 3,000 vaccines have been issued to Cape Ann residents.
Wolf said vaccinations are key to steering clear of the virus, adding that the origins for a vaccine start with the World Health Organization.
WHO officials look at influenza strain patterns in different countries, then make a match between viruses that are likely to hit the area and a vaccine preventing them.
Wolf said the current vaccine protects against three separate strains of the virus and has been very effective.
Wolf said “herd immunity” is a big aspect in any community especially with the elderly and young children being susceptible to the virus. Heard immunity, he explained, is when enough people are vaccinated so that even those without vaccinations have less of a risk of getting H3N2.
Those who do not get vaccinated are lessening the strength of heard immunity, therefore putting more people at risk, Wolf said.
He said the flu season is not over yet and he expects another spike in cases throughout the winter.
Robinson said that typically, cases are high in February, a spike this early was surprising.
zin Manchester, Public Health Nurse Pamela Ciccone said about 350 vaccinations have been handed out during the eight flu clinics, which started in the fall.
The Manchester Board of Health made an announcement on the town’s website Thursday stating there will be no more flu clinics in Manchester.
Essex officials have been hosting clinics throughout the year as well, and have handed out about 400 vaccines, some still remain said Public Health Nurse Kim Paskalis.
For statewide information about the 2012-2013 flu season, visit mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.