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Arizona gets hit hard this flu season, see what UA doctors have to say

The flu virus is now considered to be widespread in Arizona and is especially prevalent in the Tucson community.

The term “widespread” is the most severe rating, which is calculated by the amount of newly infected patients compared to the population of the demographic area. This level of flu, however, happens almost every year, according to Dr. Sean Elliott,the director of the pediatric residency program who specializes in infectious disease for Banner — Health University Medical Center.

The thing that is different this year is the timing: this level of flu usually occurs about four weeks earlier in the year.

“There’s normal seasonal variation, but because it has been so warm — not just in Arizona but also other parts of the country — it seems like the flu season might have been delayed,” Elliott said.

Arizona is the highest ranked state with incidents of flu activity as of the week of Feb. 14, according to the Walgreens Flu Index. The index is based off data regarding retail prescriptions for antiviral medications that can be used to treat the flu and the information comes from Walgreens locations around the country.

According to the same flu index, Tucson is ranked fourth in the country as a top area with flu activity.

During the week of Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, there were 1,051 laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu reported throughout 14 counties in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. During this flu season, 939 case were from Pima County alone.

With this number of flu cases, hospitals like Banner — Health University Medical Center have been receiving many patients with flu symptoms. The influx of patients can limit the amount of available hospital beds.

“All the hospitals are filled to the brim, so we’re reaching crisis levels of hospitalized patients, and yet there’s still another three or four weeks of this current level of flu, so it’s a bit dicey right now,” Elliott said.

Because of this, patients in need of hospitalization may have to wait longer in emergency rooms for a bed to become available, and elective surgeries may be put on hold in order to use those beds for patients who are sick.

Elliott estimates that the current percentage of hospital patients with the flu or an illness similar to the flu is around 15 to 18 percent.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you compare lots of other patients who have had surgeries, who have kidney failure for example, that’s a pretty significant increase in additional patients that are adding to our bed burden for the hospital,” he said.

Of those patients who are hospitalized with the flu, young adults, pregnant women and obese people have had the worst complications with the illness, according to Elliott. These complications include sepsis and the need for breathing machines or blood pressure support.

To deal with the influx of flu patients, the center has crisis response teams to work with staffing and equipment to discharge and admit patients quickly.

“If everybody is talking to each other, how can we speed up the process?" Elliott said. "How can we increase our resources? That ends up being much better for the safety of the patients and to hospitalize those patients who do need hospitalization."

All this is done to help with the increase of patients. Elliott said that if someone has symptoms, but isn’t too sick and can stay home, they should call their doctor instead of going to the emergency room.

In order to prevent getting the flu, Elliott emphasized the importance of people washing their hands frequently with soap and water. He also recommends following basic health care guidelines like drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep.

David Salafsky, director of health promotion — preventive services at UA Campus Health Service, echoed Elliott’s recommendations for following basic health care while also emphasizing that students should get a flu shot. Flu shots are available at Campus Health, and Salafsky says it's the "best defense" against the flu.

“It’s really not too late [to get a flu shot] because as we move later in the semester, most students can’t afford to be missing a week of school of several days of school or of class,” Salafsky said. “I really recommend being vaccinated.”


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