Flu cases double over previous week in Spartanburg County

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Flu cases reported in Spartanburg County more than doubled last week and the hospital emergency room is overflowing with triple the number of flu cases normally seen this time of year, officials said Thursday.

“This is a little worse than in recent years,” said Dr. Christopher M. Lombardozzi, chief medical officer of quality and emergency room physician at Spartanburg Medical Center. “We are doing the best we can to manage it.”

Many of those coming to the emergency room are experiencing early symptoms such as a cough or scratchy throat — patients who could go to their family doctor or an urgent care center instead, he said.

Spartanburg County’s health department reported 344 flu cases last week, up from 154 the previous week, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. There were six flu-related deaths statewide last week, bringing the total to 15 so far this flu season, DHEC reported.

It was the fourth straight week of widespread flu statewide, according to DHEC, as cases increased in most counties.

Neighboring Greenville County reported 948 flu cases last week, up from 678 the previous week. On Wednesday, the Greenville Health System announced visitation restrictions for those 18 and under due to the rapid increase in cases.

Cherokee County reported 41 flu cases last week, up from 33 the week before. Union County was unchanged at 22 last week.

Lombardozzi said Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System hasn’t yet issued restrictions, although that may happen if the trend continues.

The 78-bed emergency room is typically at or near capacity, even outside of flu season, he said.

With more flu patients going to the ER, it is overflowing. Some are being taken into a hallway or the trauma unit to be seen because there’s nowhere else to go, he said.

That should get better in April — toward the end of the flu season — when a hospital expansion is done, creating room for roughly 30 more emergency room beds, he said.

A few years ago, the ER was so overcrowded that a large medical tent was erected outside to accommodate the overflow of flu patients. Lombardozzi said a tent could be used again if necessary. It only takes six hours to assemble.

One reason behind the flu surge is this year’s vaccine doesn’t match some of the strains that are being seen, Lombardozzi said.

The Australian government recently estimated the same vaccine being used here was only 10 percent effective against the virus, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Even in years when influenza vaccines are well-matched to circulating viruses, estimates of vaccine effectiveness range from 40 to 60 percent,” the health publication reported earlier this month.

Lombardozzi said locally the flu vaccine’s effectiveness has been roughly 30 percent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best predictor for this year’s strains are those that were most prevalent at the end of last season.

In the end, the vaccine selected is an educated guess, Lombardozzi said.

Still, he advises everyone to get a flu shot.

“Thirty percent is not great, [but] anything is better than nothing — especially for a child or someone 65 and older,” he said.

Doctors recommend that even healthy people in their 20s to 40s get a flu shot because it helps reduce the spread of the virus.

“You’re helping to protect everyone else,” Lombardozzi said.

Typically, the flu season peaks in February. It can last until April or May.

Those who are sick should stay away from others, wash their hands regularly and wear a mask that can be bought at a pharmacy to avoid spreading the germs, Lombardozzi said. They should also stay home from work.

“Please, if you’re sick, don’t go to work or school,” Lombardozzi said.

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Symptoms may include a sudden onset of fever, cough, headache or muscle aches, tiredness, sore throat and nasal congestion or stuffiness, according to DHEC.

DHEC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated against the flu, especially those at increased risk of complications, including young people, those 50 and older, pregnant women and those with chronic medical conditions.

Worldwide, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 flu deaths occur each year. In the United States, there are between 12,000 and 56,000 flu deaths a year and between 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations, according to the World Health Organization.

Bob Montgomery is a reporter for the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal.