By Scott Malone
BOSTON Jan 9 With flu cases in this city up
tenfold from last year, the mayor of Boston declared a public
health emergency on Wednesday as authorities around the United
States scrambled to cope with a rising number of patients.
Health authorities say a virulent strain this year has
caused the number of flu cases to surge earlier than usual.
Hospitals around the country have scrambled to find additional
space to treat the ill, and some have had to turn people away.
Mayor Thomas Menino said the number of reported infections
in Boston is already 10 times higher than last season's reported
caseload, and said the city would begin offering free flu
vaccinations on Saturday in an effort to stem the spread.
"The latest reports show an increasingly tough flu season,"
Menino told reporters. He urged residents to get vaccinated,
saying, "We are less than halfway through the flu season."
The flu season typically picks up in December, builds to a
peak in January or February and fades away by late March or
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported
that the proportion of people visiting their doctors for
flu-like illnesses has doubled in the past four weeks.
The CDC does not track all cases of flu. The number is
difficult to pin down since not all people who develop symptoms
seek medical attention.
Encouraging vaccinations is one of the most effective steps
in combating what looks to be a serious strain of the flu, said
Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at
the Harvard School of Public Health.
"This is a bad year, there's no question about it. It's
going to be, at minimum, moderately severe," Hanage said, adding
that the outbreak looks less severe than in 2009 when the
dominant strain was the H1N1 swine flu.
The A(H3) strain of flu, which CDC data shows is the most
commonly diagnosed this year, tends to bring more severe illness
and a longer flu season.
In Illinois last week, large numbers of sick people
overwhelmed some hospitals, and 24 facilities had to turn away
some sick people, more than triple the seven hospitals that
turned patients away in the same week last year.
"We've been told that a lot of it has been due to upper
respiratory, influenza-type illnesses. Not 100 percent of it.
But there are indications that a lot of it is flu-related," said
Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of
Lehigh Valley Hospital, outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, on
Tuesday set up a large tent outside its emergency room, which it
is using to see patients who arrive with less-severe flu cases,
said hospital spokesman Brian Downs.
"What we're trying to do is sort of help some of that extra
burden that is put on the emergency room because of the extra
patients that are coming in with flu," said Downs, who estimated
that daily visits to the hospital's emergency department are up
about 30 percent due to the flu.
In Maine, health authorities reported a "significantly
higher" than normal number of flu cases and warned residents
this week to expect flu activity to remain high for the next few
In North Carolina, flu activity has been recorded at the
highest levels in a decade with 14 deaths. Many hospitals there
have tightened restrictions on visitors. One company, Carolinas
HealthCare System, said it would restrict most visitors under
age 12 from Charlotte-area hospitals starting on Thursday after
a spike in emergency department visits for flu-like symptoms.
In Weymouth, Massachusetts, outside Boston, South Shore
Hospital received approval from state regulators to move
patients ahead of schedule into 10 rooms it was renovating to
accommodate the influx.
Job-consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas warned that
the weak economy could cause the outbreak to spread more quickly
because some Americans are reluctant to stay home from work.
"Whether it is motivated by job security or a desire to
continue making a contribution in an overburdened workplace,
"presenteeism," as it has come to be called, only spreads
illness to more workers and further damages the employers'
ability to meet demand," said John Challenger, the firm's chief
Public health officials urged people to stay home from work
or school if they become ill, but not necessarily to rush to the
hospital, particular if they are between the ages of 5 and 65
and otherwise healthy.
"What we don't want ... is people just pouring into the
emergency departments, we would really like people to contact
their health care provider," said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive
director of the Boston Public Health Commission.