Grady’s ER trailer returns to combat flu

The flu is back in Georgia, and so is Grady Memorial Hospital’s emergency room trailer.

Lab tests have confirmed five Georgia deaths related to flu since October and more than 600 hospitalizations, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

The appearance last year of the trailer at Grady — actually a high-tech mobile medical unit shipped in from North Carolina — made national news as a jarring sign of the flu epidemic's out-of-control spread. Hospital emergency rooms across the country were bursting at the seams as a flu more powerful than unusual struck down patients that were younger and healthier than usual. Grady rented the trailer from a hospital in North Carolina that had developed the idea out of local area emergency planning.

Last year’s flu season killed at least 145 Georgians, and hundreds more were hospitalized. The real toll including those unconfirmed by lab tests is probably far higher; Robert Redfield, the director of the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said that nationwide the death toll was 80,000.

This year may not be so bad, said Dr. Hany Atallah, Grady’s chief of emergency medicine. U.S. officials get early signals on flu from Australia, where it hits before coming here. There, the season was shorter than it was last year.

But the mobile unit at Grady, officially called Atrium Health’s Carolinas MED-1, worked out well enough that the hospital was glad to bring it back. The Grady ER is usually near capacity, and flu season tips it over.

“We’re going to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Atallah said.

Grady has already tested more than 1,000 patients for flu this winter. Well over 100 came up positive for flu, and dozens of those had to be admitted to the hospital.

“It doesn’t seem to be quite as severe in terms of how sick it makes people this year, but it seems to be affecting a lot of people,” Atallah said. This year’s strains include H1N1, once dubbed “swine flu,” and H3N2.

The mobile unit can take about 100 patients a day, so last year it took 7,000 to 9,000 patients out of the emergency room. Patients still show up to the regular ER, and if their cases look less severe, they may be escorted to the mobile unit.

One thing remains the same from last year: Even though the flu shot is never a perfect match to fight a particular year's flu virus, it still helps. Children who died from the flu last year were far more likely to be those who didn't get flu shots.


GRADY MOBILE ER UNIT

What: The Carolinas MED-1 is Atrium Health's mobile ER unit.

Why: Originally developed after a 1998 bomb scare spurred emergency planning, it's been deployed a few times, for example following Hurricane Katrina.

How much: It costs $213,000 for 30 days, in addition to Grady Memorial Hospital's expenses for staffing and supplies.

How to avoid it: Get a flu shot.

Sources: Grady Memorial Hospital, Atrium Health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention