ST. LOUIS – The number of flu cases continues to rise in the St. Louis area, putting a lot of pressure on hospitals that are already at or near capacity.
“Making sure we can care for everyone in the community poses major challenges,” warned a Wednesday report by a working group of St. Louis-area hospitals.
While the cases of respiratory syncytial virus that overwhelmed local hospitals in October are down, they are being replaced by a flu season that is coming fast and furious.
At Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, about 20 to 40 patients a day come to the emergency department with flu-like symptoms, and 10 to 20 need to be admitted with the flu, said Dr. Robert Poirier, a Washington University physician who serves as clinical director of the emergency department.
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“We are seeing twice as many patients this week as the week before, and last week it was also double,” Poirier said Wednesday. “We’re starting this year with a bang.”
The challenge, Poirier said, is that the hospital is full, along with the emergency department, driving up wait times and limiting the ability to transfer patients to a higher level of care.
Many patients are also unable to leave the hospital due to staffing issues faced by nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and home health services.
“It supports the whole system,” he said.
The flu season seems to be the worst since 2010 and 2011 so far. Flu cases typically start with a steep climb in December and January, but this season has an unusual jump in October and November.
In the week of Nov. 19, according to the latest data available, Missouri reported nearly 4,900 lab-confirmed cases of the flu — nearly double the number two weeks before and already surpassing last year’s peak that came in late December.
So far this season through Nov. 19, Missouri has reported nearly 13,700 cases and three flu-related deaths, according to state health department data. The highest rates of flu cases and hospital visits are in children under 4 years old.
Dr. Rachel Orscheln, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Washington University at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said doctors are already seeing a large number of children in the hospital because of the flu.
“We are well above previous year’s high for business; and in terms of hospitalizations, we are already slightly above the high of previous years,” Orscheln said.
With no signs of cases leveling off, she said: “I would imagine hospitalizations will continue to rise.”
The rising number of flu cases has pushed Missouri into the “high” prevalence category on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu map.
There are at least 6.2 million cases of illness, 53,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths from the flu nationwide, according to the CDC.
Hospital and public health leaders say they don’t know how high the numbers will rise. And while COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions have remained stable in recent months, that too could change and put pressure on hospital capacity.
In the week leading up to Nov. 27, an average of 770 people a day were hospitalized with COVID-19 across Missouri, state data shows. About 20 to 50 Missouri residents have died from COVID-19 each week for the past two months.
“Due to holiday gatherings and other indoor activities, we expect more cases of RSV, COVID-19 and other respiratory infections,” the St. Louis County Department of Public Health said in a warning issued Wednesday. “It is important that we do everything we can to prevent the spread of disease.”
Doctors urged everyone over 6 months old to get the flu vaccine, which is a close match against the strains circulating, and to get an updated COVID-19 booster.
COVID-19 vaccinations are offered weekdays at the John C. Murphy Health Center in Berkeley, the South County Health Center in Sunset Hills, and the North Central Community Health Center in Jennings from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. the three health centers from 8:30 am to 10:30 am and from 1 pm to 3 pm
Also avoid trips to emergency departments, health officials said.
Those with mild to moderate cold symptoms can call their primary care physician, use telehealth services offered by insurance, or visit an emergency room.
Trips to the emergency room should be reserved for those with difficulty breathing, sudden dizziness, severe vomiting, dehydration, high fever, or a fever higher than 100.4 for babies less than 8 weeks old.
“We’re congested,” said Poirier, “and if you have mild symptoms you have to wait a long time to be seen because we’re busy treating those who are sicker.”