Flu hospitalizations in metro Atlanta reach record levels

The total number of flu-related hospitalizations in metro Atlanta has now reached a new high at 1,801 during this flu season — and it’s not over yet.

This figure —1,801 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta — is already higher than any total for a flu season since the Georgia Department of Public Health started using this tracking system in 2009.

"It's the worst season I can recall," said  Dr. James Steinberg, chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta. He's been the chief medical officer there for 12 years an infectious disease specialist for the past three decades.

“Worst season in terms of burden of illness, overall volume and the total volume causing major stress in the emergency room, in-patient services and in critical care units.”

During recent weeks, there were times when the ER was backed up with as many as 20 patients sick with the flu at the hospital needed to wait to be admitted because there were not enough hospital beds to handle the influx of flu patients. Like other hospitals across the country facing overcrowding, some patients at Emory University Hospital Midtown have had to wait for several hours or be treated in medical treatment/screening areas set up to handle overflow patients.

For the first time, Grady Memorial Hospital has set up a mobile emergency department outside to help handle flu patients.

The total hospitalizations in metro Atlanta this season is far more than the totals during recent years and even dwarfs the 2014-2015 season, which was considered another severe flu season. The total number of hospitalizations in metro Atlanta during the 2014-2015 season climbed to 1,460 for the entire season ending in May.

Dr. Hany Atallah stands inside a mobile emergency room set up outside Grady Memorial Hospital to help handle the ever-growing number of flu cases in Atlanta, Monday, Jan. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Credit: David Goldman

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Credit: David Goldman

Georgia's death toll from flu has also continued to mount, and now stands at 79 dead from the sickness.

The state Department of Public Health on Friday released figures for the week ending February 10, showing that 13 new patients were confirmed dead from flu, one of them a child.

Health officials are urging people who have not been vaccinated to do so. The request came with greater emphasis when late last week they learned that data showed the flu vaccine this year was somewhat more effective than previously thought.

This 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention photo shows the H3N2 strain of the flu, which has been only 10 percent to 15 percent responsive to the current flu vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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This season, the predominant flu strain is H3N2, a form of influenza A. This flu strain is associated with more severe illness, especially among children and the elderly. This strain is included in this year’s flu vaccine, but viruses can change and this particular strain tends to mutate more than other strains.

Experts say even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, the vaccine can still help lessen the severity of the flu, and reduce the chance of experiencing severe complications from the flu. Getting a vaccine can also reduce the length of the flu if you do get sick.

While the number of H3N2 cases may be starting to dip, Steinberg and other doctors said they are also seeing an uptick of the influenza B strain. The flu vaccine is believed to provide greater protection against influenza B.

“It’s not too late to get the vaccine, that’s definitely the first thing I would tell people,” said Steinberg.

Steinberg also said the number of hospitalizations appears to be on the downturn over the past week, and hopefully signals a start of a decline of this serious flu season.

Dr. Cherie Drenzek, Georgia's state epidemiologist, said if you do get sick and think you may have the flu, contact your health care provider right away, particularly if you or family members are at high risk for serious flu complications — young children (under the age of 5), those over 65, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or asthma. Even young, healthy adults should call their doctor if symptoms don't improve or get worse after three to four days of illness. There are antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza that can help reduce the duration of flu symptoms but the medication needs to be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be most effective.


According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency warning signs for people to go to the ER include:

Trouble breathing

Chest pain

Persistent vomiting

Flu-like symptoms that improve but return with fever and a worse cough


Cough into the inside of your elbow, not the open air

Get a flu shot

Avoid infected people if possible

Wash hands frequently

Ariel Hart contributed to this article

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Click this link to check out the wait times: https://hospitals.myajc.com/