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Arriving in a Rush, Flu Takes Its Toll on Patients, Hospitals

Health: Cases are up 30% to 40% over a year ago, taxing medical staffs. Doctors fear the peak is still ahead.


Los Angeles County hospitals and doctors' offices are scrambling to treat flu patients and victims of respiratory disease amid a growing shortage of nurses and hospital beds.

Feverish patients are waiting up to six hours to be seen in some emergency rooms, and doctors fear the wait will only grow as the flu season peaks in coming weeks. Ambulances increasingly have been diverted from overwhelmed hospitals to less busy facilities.

"We've been really worrying about this flu epidemic, and surely it's hitting now," said Dr. Daniel Higgins, emergency medical director at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood. "In the past we've had viral infections combined with the flu that have devastated emergency departments. We are on the verge of that now."

Compared with a year ago, some emergency rooms report seeing 30% to 40% more patients with flu-like symptoms, said Alicia Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for private hospitals in Glendale, East Los Angeles and Simi Valley.

"They are seeing very sick people," Gonzalez said. "People are coming in with fevers of 103 and 104 [degrees]."

To accommodate the influx of patients, most nurses at the region's hospitals have been working overtime or skipping vacations and holidays, according to Jim Lott of the Healthcare Assn. of Southern California, a hospital trade group. Many hospitals have hired temporary nurses to help, he said.

During flu season, one in about six visitors to emergency rooms comes in with flu-like symptoms, Lott said. This season, he said, it has been more like one in four.

But hospitals are not the only fronts in the flu war. In fact, health officials encourage flu victims to visit their family doctors or pharmacists, rather than emergency rooms. While the flu can be serious--and even fatal--for the elderly and those with asthma or weak immune systems, it generally does not warrant a hospital visit. General practitioners can prescribe medications that, if administered soon after symptoms appear, can help battle the illness.

At a Canoga Park pediatrics office Wednesday, the appointment book was full. "They're all thinking that we can cure it," nurse Judy Nahan said. "I wish I could."

This flu season was dreaded even before it began. The manufacture of influenza vaccine was delayed for weeks, and then the supplies were unevenly distributed. Doctors worried that their most vulnerable patients would not get protection in time and accused some distributors of price gouging.

It remains unclear whether this season will shape up to be worse than last year's, but the recent surge has increased physicians' anxieties.

"It's a little early," said Dr. Richard Stringham, a Northridge family practitioner. "It seems to hit here full force near the middle of January. . . . In recent years, I thought it was going to be an easy year, then it hits like wildfire. I've seen it happen in a weekend."

In Ventura County, hospitals reported few, if any, cases of influenza. Incidents were more frequent 10 days ago, and now a stomach virus with flu-like symptoms is going around.

"We've had a relatively mild flu season," said Dr. Paul David, co-director of the emergency department of Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks. "It may be the nice weather [keeping cases down], but the flu may rear its head again."

Nationwide, influenza of one strain or another is associated with 20,000 deaths each year and more than 100,000 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The most flu cases are seen in urban areas, where dense populations spread airborne viruses faster than in less crowded areas.

Health officials expect flu cases everywhere to shoot up as schools resume classes after the holidays. Classrooms full of schoolchildren with unwashed hands can be a hotbed for germs.

"It's good to have the week off, because it keeps the kids away from each other so they don't spread it," said Diane Sopher, the nurse at Haddon Elementary School in Pacoima. Immediately before the school's holiday break and since it reopened Tuesday, she has sent home four or five feverish students each day.

"I normally see about 20 kids a day," Sopher said, "but I've been seeing up to 50."


Times staff writer David Kelly contributed to this story.

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