BISMARCK-North Dakota hospitals are responding to a spike in flu-related visits in recent weeks, mirroring a current nationwide trend and in neighboring states.
Despite the flu season ramping up to be one of the worst, the end may be in sight: On Friday, officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it may be at its peak.
CDC officials, in a conference call with reporters, said the flu season appears to be peaking due to slower patient traffic in comparison to last month.
According to the CDC's FluView report, which is updated weekly, 49 states are experiencing widespread flu activity, including North Dakota and Minnesota.
The peak of the flu season is on par with past seasons, Jill Baber, an epidemiologist with the state Health Department, said Friday. Typically, the season can peak anywhere from January to February.
"We might be (peaking), but it's too soon to tell," she said.
Within one week - the week ending Jan. 6 - there were 35 flu hospitalizations in North Dakota, according to data from the North Dakota Department of Health's weekly flu snapshot. So far, there have been eight reported deaths caused by the flu, though that number could be higher.
North Dakota hospitals are responding to more patients coming in with the flu, prompting at least one hospital to respond with visitation restrictions. Trinity Hospital in Minot on Friday announced limited visitation to prevent the flu from spreading. Sanford Health in Bismarck is floating a similar measure, which it enforced last year.
In addition to constraints in hospitals nationwide, the increase in flu cases also occurs amid shortages of IV solutions, and hospitals are responding by limiting their IV fluid use.
Dr. Jeffrey Lauer, an infectious disease specialist at CHI St. Alexius Health in Bismarck, said the hospital has seen an increase in flu hospitalizations starting in the middle of last month and into the new year - with cases affecting primarily elderly people.
With a rise in flu cases - about 100 since the start of the season, 25 of which resulted in patient admittance - CHI St. Alexius also has managed to get by despite a shortage of IV fluids as a result of manufacturing disruption in Puerto Rico.
"(We're) trying to cut back on the amount IVs we're using - finding what's available to us and then cut back on the mixing of the drugs to make them less fluid-dependent," Lauer said.
Sanford Health in Bismarck is also reporting a "sharp increase" in flu hospitalizations - including the hospital and outpatient clinics in the Bismarck-Mandan area - within the past month. On an average day, of the 250 patients in the hospital, two to three people have the flu, according to Dr. Noe Mateo, Sanford's infectious disease specialist.
The hospital's building in downtown Bismarck has seen an increase in the number of people being admitted for influenza, "but it's not necessarily flooding the ER rooms," Mateo said, despite the emergency room being full in recent weeks.
"It's true that this is the time of the year that hospitals do get stressed, because the emergency rooms are full, people are backed up and there's no room to admit them into the hospital," Mateo said. "That's occurring nationwide, and so Bismarck isn't immune from that sort of thing, but it's a little hard to just specifically say that's strictly due to influenza."
The flu season is turning out to be particularly severe because of the widely circulating strain, H3N2, which can be be detrimental to children and the elderly.
Adults older than 65 and younger children are highest at risk to develop more serious conditions in conjunction with the flu, Lauer said, with the most common being pneumonia. People with chronic medical issues are also more likely to see a bad outcome with the flu.
In the U.S. last year, the flu vaccine was 32 percent effective against the H3N2, so CDC officials are predicting a similar vaccine effectiveness this year, though it won't officially be determined until next month.
Still, doctors at Sanford and CHI St. Alexius recommend people who haven't yet gotten a flu shot to get one now.
"No vaccination is 100 percent," Lauer said, adding it's better to have some protection than none at all.
Health officials recommend flu shots for everyone 6 months and older.
"The vaccine doesn't necessarily prevent you from getting influenza, but it does prevent you from getting sick and missing school, missing work, getting hospitalized and getting admitted to the intensive care unit and potentially dying," Mateo said.
Flu deaths and hospitalizations as it has progressed:
• Week ending Jan. 6: 8 deaths, 117 hospitalizations
• Week ending Dec. 30: 6 deaths, 82 hospitalizations
• Week ending Dec. 23: 6 deaths, 59 hospitalizations
• Week ending Dec. 16: 2 deaths, 44 hospitalizations
• Week ending Dec. 9: 1 death, 35 hospitalizations
• Week ending Dec. 2: 1 death, 22 hospitalizations
• Week ending Nov. 25: 1 death, 13 hospitalizations
• Week ending Nov. 18: 0 deaths, 10 hospitalizations
• Week ending Nov. 11: 0 deaths, 3 hospitalizations
Source: North Dakota Department of Health, www.ndflu.com