Dr. Hany Atallah, the chief of emergency medicine at Grady Memorial Hospital, speaks with Sheryl Heron, the vice chairwoman of administrative affairs in the department of emergency medicine, while they’re inside Carolinas MED-1. It’s a mobile medical facility currently located outside of the Marcus trauma and emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital to help handle flu cases. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Atlanta hospital opens nation’s only mobile ER to treat flu patients

As flu epidemic slams Georgia, Grady Memorial opens specialized trailer to relieve overwhelmed waiting rooms. 

The flu epidemic is so overwhelming patient waiting rooms that Grady Memorial Hospital is setting up a specialized trailer outside its emergency room with space for 14 beds to handle flu victims.

At least 25 Georgians have died of flu so far this year. Officials at the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that this year’s flu epidemic is tracking to be as bad as the deadly 2014-2015 flu season, when more than 700,000 Americans were hospitalized and perhaps 34 million got the flu.

The signs are clear in Georgia: Last week, for the third week in a row, flu deaths announced here more than doubled. Flu drugs are becoming scarce in the state and nationwide. Across the country the epidemic has killed 37 children.

“Everybody is overloaded with it,” said Monty Veazey, the president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, which represents rural facilities across the state. “All of our hospitals are experiencing mass amounts of patients presenting with flu or flu-like symptoms.” Moreover, he added: “What we’re being told is this could string out to May. So there’s no relief in sight.”

The bond ratings agency Moody’s released a report Monday on the flu, predicting that it will put financial pressure on hospitals across the country.

One day last week, Grady’s emergency room, which usually sees 350-400 patients a day, was hit with more than 500.

“When there’s that many people in a limited space, not necessarily just in the emergency room but the hospital as a whole, being able to provide care at the level and pace we want becomes very difficult,” said Dr. Hany Atallah, the chief of emergency medicine at Grady Health System. “It was very obvious. It was no surprise that this was a discussion we had to have.”

Atallah went to Grady CEO John Haupert, who agreed to spend extra resources and asked the hospital’s emergency manager to find options.

There weren’t many. The idea of tents came up. “We felt strongly that that would not be — we won’t do things for our patients we wouldn’t do for our own families,” Attalah said. So they went with the mobile unit.

“John said if that’s what we’re need and that’s what our patients need, that’s what we’re going to do,” Attalah said.

The trailer costs about $200,000 for 30 days, not including supplies or Grady staffing, Grady spokeswoman Denise Simpson said.

The unit, called Carolinas MED-1, is the first of its kind, its owners say. It was specially constructed for a North Carolina hospital years after a 1998 mass bomb scare in Charlotte spurred intense emergency planning in the county. Now they use it and rent it out.

Its first deployment was to Mississippi following the 2005 Hurricane Katrina devastation, where medical workers performed two dozen surgeries in it. It’s served hurricane and flood victims, been set up inside the secure zone at a political convention, and worked local events such as flu shot drives. This is the first time it’s come to Georgia.

Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, said hospitals across the state were grappling with large numbers of flu patients, but that Grady was Georgia’s only hospital so far to deploy an external unit.

“That is a fantastic idea,” said Megan Allen, a spokeswoman for Navicent Health, which runs a hospital in Macon and other facilities and has also been slammed with flu patients.

Attalah doesn’t expect Grady to use the trailer for surgery, but rather to handle the flu patients who aren’t too sick to walk and can be seen more quickly. He’s hoping it will take the load off the emergency room by at least 100 patients a day, perhaps up to 150.

Kristy Haynes, a spokeswoman for the unit, said it meets hospital quality and cleanliness standards.

Grady has the unit for the next 30 days at least, and by then CDC officials hope the season will ease. For now, though, hospitals and clinics are strained.

Dr. Dan Jernigan, the director of the CDC’s influenza division, said Friday that there are spot shortages of antiviral flu drugs and some manufacturers can’t fill all the orders coming in right away.

Atallah said Grady was no different. “We’re in the same situation as the rest of the country,” he said. “Yes, we’ve had some challenges.”

Grady staff has been pulling extra shifts to deal with the flu, Atallah said.

As far along as the season is, health officials are still urging people to get vaccinated if they aren’t already.

While this year’s flu vaccine wasn’t a great match for the virus that turned out to be prevalent this year, it can save a flu patient from getting much sicker than he or she would otherwise. It is a match for some other forms of the virus that may ally with the main virus and attack a patient all at once.

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