January 10, 2013

Increasing reports of flu raising concerns in Maine

Medical/surgical ward nearly 100 percent full at MaineGeneral in Waterville

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Influenza has reached epidemic proportions in Maine and hospital beds are quickly filling up, according to health care officials.

Stephen Sears

Contributed photo

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Flu outbreaks in Maine:

* 2011-12: 10

* 2012-13: 57 (as of Jan. 8)

Outbreaks so far this year at institutions:

* 51 at long-term care facilities

* 1 at an acute care facility

* 2 at K-12 schools

* 2 at other institutions

* 1 at a camp

Outbreaks this year by region:

* Kennebec County: 9

* Somerset County: 9

* Franklin County: 2

Source: Maine CDC

"This is probably one of the more intense outbreaks we've seen in the last five or 10 years," said State Epidemiologist Stephen Sears.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't track individual flu cases, but it's clear that the virus is widespread in central Maine and throughout the state, Sears said. All three strains of the flu virus are present, with A/H3 the predominant strain.

Diane Peterson, spokeswoman for MaineGeneral Medical Center, said the campuses in Augusta and Waterville have admitted 42 patients with confirmed cases of influenza this season and have treated many more. The medical/surgical wards at both locations were almost full Thursday -- 91 percent full in Augusta and almost 100 percent full in Waterville. Peterson said she wasn't certain how many of beds were occupied by flu patients, but said the virus is contributing to high occupancy at both locations.

The Maine CDC is asking people to take four precautions against the spread of the virus: Get vaccinated, wash your hands, stay home if you're sick and cover your cough with your sleeve or a tissue.

Vaccination is key to reducing the chances of getting the flu, Sears said. National and statewide availability of vaccinations and antiviral medications is adequate, but there could be some short-term shortages in areas where they are heavily prescribed.

"It's not too late to get vaccinated," Sears said.

Sears also recommended that people with symptoms call their physician before reporting to emergency departments to avoid overwhelming care providers. Also, people should avoid visiting friends and relatives in hospitals and nursing homes because the virus is likely present there. Health care facilities are also trying to reduce the chances of people bringing the virus into areas where it isn't present.

There is at least one confirmed influenza death this season in Maine -- a 6-year-old Benton girl, who had not been vaccinated, died last month. It was Maine's first pediatric flu death since 2010.

In Maine, only pediatric deaths from influenza are reportable, "but we know there are going to be people who die from this epidemic," Sears said.

Influenza is also not reportable for individual cases, but institutions such as schools and long-term care facilities must report outbreaks to the Maine Center for Disease Control. In the week ending Saturday, 27 new cases were reported to Maine CDC, bringing the total for the 2012-13 flu season to 57. There were 10 reported outbreaks during the 2011-12 season, which was milder than most.

The virus is expected to be active in Maine for several more weeks, according to the Maine CDC.

Ben McCanna -- 861-9239

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