Rough flu season taxes Sacramento region’s emergency rooms

The widespread and deadly flu season that has claimed five lives in the Sacramento region is taxing hospital emergency rooms – with some filled to capacity.

The early peaking flu season has even forced one of the region’s hospitals to redirect ambulances because it had too many emergency-room patients and not enough beds.

At Sutter Medical Center, Roseville, a surge in emergency room walk-ins on Jan. 3 forced the hospital to redirect three ambulances, said Erik Angle, the hospital’s emergency-preparedness coordinator. On that day, he said, Sutter Roseville had 70 walk-in patients between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.

No ambulances have been redirected since that day, Angle said, but the hospital nearly had to do so on Thursday. Sutter Roseville usually averages about 200 emergency-room patients a day, but “we’ve been up to 230 patients a day since Jan. 1,” he said. “Hopefully this is not the tip of the iceberg.”

No other hospitals in the region have redirected ambulances because of the recent flu outbreak, said Bruce Wagner, EMS coordinator for Sacramento County. Wagner coordinates services for 19 hospitals and said diversions are “extremely rare.”

But other hospitals contacted by The Bee on Saturday said they have seen a significant increase in patients with flu symptoms.

Emergency-room visits at Sutter General and Sutter Memorial have more than doubled from the average of 115 per day, said Kim Meyers, nurse leader for Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, which runs both hospitals. “Now we’re averaging between 250 and 270 visits a day,” she said.

Local hospitals that are part of the Dignity Health hospital system – including Mercy General, Methodist and Mercy San Juan – have also been busy and some are nearing emergency-room capacity, said Jill Dryer, a spokeswoman for Dignity Health.

Overflowing emergency rooms provide just one more sign of how hard the Sacramento region has been hit by this year’s flu outbreak. Of the seven flu deaths statewide, five have occurred in Sacramento in the past week, and dozens of local flu patients have landed in intensive-care units. State health officials said they are investigating 28 other deaths to see if flu was a factor.

All five local fatalities involved the influenza A strain H1N1, a version of the virus that struck worldwide in 2009. The federal Centers for Disease Control said H1N1 can tend to strike otherwise healthy young adults or middle-aged people. The Sacramento-area fatalities were ages 53, 37, 46, 56 and 61.

Health officials have recommended that everyone over age 6 months get a flu shot.

An anomaly of this flu season is that it seems to be peaking early, said Meyers, from Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento.

“From a statistical standpoint, we have seen a significant increase in our emergency department visits and we’ve seen them earlier than in typical flu years,” she said.

Another unusual aspect of this year’s flu season is that more patients seen in the emergency room are being admitted to inpatient care.

“We’re having some record in-patient volumes where we have been pretty much full in terms of our beds,” Meyers said.