UPDATE: New report shows flu activity rising in Georgia

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta: “Unprecedented” number of sick children are filling ERs and urgent care centers

The flu season ramped up early this fall and is raging, with Georgia and Washington, D.C. leading the nation for flu-like virus infections.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta says “an unprecedented” number of sick children are filling emergency departments and urgent care centers, including children who require hospitalization and intensive care.

The impact of multiple viral surges is severe: In addition to influenza, other respiratory viruses circulating include respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, a highly contagious seasonal flu-like illness that is more likely to be serious in infants and older adults. Adding to the virus spread are rhinoviruses, the most common cause of colds, and the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

A hospital spokesperson declined to provide specific numbers but said the surge is two to three times their normal volume of patients.

The hospital is temporarily postponing some elective surgical and medical procedures but time-sensitive, urgent procedures and admissions will not be affected. A hospital spokesperson said that patients currently receiving ongoing care through the hospital system will continue to receive it.

Currently, according to the hospital system’s website, emergency room wait times are more than three hours long at all Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hospitals.

Georgia reports “high” flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s influenza activity map. Flu activity has picked up even more in Washington, D.C., with the nation’s capitol now in a “very high” category, based on the percent of patient visits to doctors for flu or flu-like illnesses. Most states in the country are currently experiencing low flu activity.

“We have been extremely busy. Flu, RSV, and other respiratory viruses all at the same time. Not much COVID currently,” said Dr. Hugo Scornik, a Conyers pediatrician and former president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We didn’t have bad flu seasons for the past two years due to masking, etc. but I am afraid we are in for a severe season this year. All children 6 months and up need to get their flu shot ASAP to prevent a severe case of flu.”

In September, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Scottish Rite Hospital expanded its emergency room with a tent erected in a parking lot to accommodate a higher volume of patients.

The emergency room tent expansion at the Children's Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite Hospital. (Photo provided by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta)

Credit: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

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Credit: Children's Healthcare of Atlanta

A Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta spokesperson said other healthcare systems around the region are also experiencing the stress of similar patient surges.

Influenza can circulate year-round in the U.S. but is most active during the winter. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as people stayed home and wore masks, flu activity nearly disappeared. Fewer flu cases meant fewer people developed immunity and many people, especially young children, didn’t develop immunity since they weren’t exposed to illnesses. Now, amid the loosening of COVID-19 precautions, doctors are bracing for an especially severe season that’s already taking root. Another troubling indicator on what’s to come: Australia is nearing the end of its worst season in five years, according to the country’s Department of Health and Aged Care. The Southern Hemisphere is often a harbinger for the influenza severity the U.S. will experience.

Respiratory illnesses including the flu are especially dangerous for people 65 and over, young children, pregnant people and those with chronic health conditions such as heart and lung diseases.

In the first week of October 2022, the Centers for Disease Control said Georgia was ranked second in flu activity, behind Washington D.C.

Credit: CDC map

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Credit: CDC map

The Georgia Department of Public Health reports 5.6% of patient visits to doctors were for flu or flu-like illnesses during the week ending Oct. 8, the most recent week for which numbers are available. That’s up from 4.9% from the previous week. There have been no influenza-related deaths so far this season in Georgia.

During the last couple of years, the percentage of visits for flu fell below even the baseline of 3.1%. The 2017-2018 flu season was one of the most brutal in recent years, with close to 150 people dying in Georgia and more than 3,000 people hospitalized in metro Atlanta.

Dr. Joy Maxey, an Atlanta pediatrician, also said her practice is seeing an increase in RSV cases and other respiratory viruses, with flu cases increasing dramatically in the past two weeks. She recommends parents redouble their efforts on the basics: getting the flu shot, good nutrition, eight hours of quality sleep each night and good hand hygiene. For those who get sick, she said they should stay home and keep an eye on symptoms.

Scornik said danger signs for those sick with the flu include difficulty breathing and extreme lethargy. Development of a new rash is also concerning. “These are reasons to seek medical care right away,” he said.

Eboni Pyron, a parent from Clayton County, said she and her injured son waited six hours one day this week to be seen by an emergency room doctor at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hughes Spalding location.

Pyron said the emergency department waiting room was “very crowded” with children experiencing fevers and flu-like symptoms. The pair left when they were finally admitted to a room only to be told that there weren’t any doctors available to see them. Pyron said she wishes she had been told to just go to a different hospital.

“As parents, it was absolutely terrifying to know that your baby might have to be hospitalized due to [RSV],” Kristen Lawson, a parent who recently took her daughter to a Dacula urgent care center to be treated for the virus, said in a text to the AJC.

In an interview conducted over a social media messenger, Lawson said the doctors at urgent care told her that if her daughter’s condition worsened, she would need to go to the nearest hospital, Scottish Rite.

“[The doctors] told us to look out for blue around her mouth which would mean she isn’t getting enough oxygen,” Lawson said. She said she was “instantly in panic mode” because she lives in Winder, an hour away from the hospital.

Pyron expressed similar frustrations. The closest children’s hospital is 30-35 minutes from where she lives, depending on traffic, and she knows parents who have had to take time off work to accommodate longer-than-usual emergency room wait times.

“Jobs don’t care, they expect you to be there,” Pyron said. “It’s stressful.”

Pyron’s son is stable, but she plans on taking him to urgent care as soon as she can. While Lawson’s daughter avoided hospitalization, she wasn’t out of the woods yet, either.

“There have been a lot of sleepless nights monitoring her and making sure she is breathing okay and free of mucus. It’s awful to know that this can last up to two weeks,” Lawson wrote. “There is nothing worse than seeing your baby suffer and there’s not much you can do to make them feel better.”

Tips for staying safe during this flu season

Stay up to date on vaccines and boosters. Get your annual flu shot and your COVID-19 vaccine and booster (when eligible). According to the CDC, COVID vaccines can be given at the same time as an annual flu shot.

To schedule a vaccine, go to https://www.vaccines.gov/find-vaccines/

Stay home when you are sick. If you must go out in public, wear a mask until symptoms improve.

Cover coughs and sneezes with the inside of your arm.

Clean your hands frequently, especially before eating and after coughing or sneezing.

SOURCE: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta