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Omaha hospitals brace for unpredictable flu season

Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 5:48 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - As COVID-19 continues to spread in the Omaha-metro area, local hospitals are also preparing for the flu season.

Last year’s flu season was almost non-existent. CHI Health says in all of their hospitals, they never had a single flu patient hospitalized.

The Douglas County Health Department’s flu numbers from last year show just 12 recorded positive cases, compared to the 2019-2020 seasons, which saw over 6,900.

But local experts say it would be naïve to assume that this year will be the same.

“We are definitely preparing for an influenza season and trying to anticipate what that will look like,” says Dr. Mark Rupp, medical director of Nebraska Medicine’s infectious disease division.

Officials say flu patients on their own won’t typically overwhelm a hospital, but combined with high COVID hospitalizations — like the area is seeing now — it could put them over the edge.

“We already have some stress on the hospital system now,” said Dr. David Quimby, an infectious disease expert with CHI Health. “We have delays for certain surgical procedures that would require admission afterward, so if we’re going to add more inpatients to the mix, that would add more stress there unless there were less inpatients because COVID were to decrease or other things were to decrease.”

Dr. Rupp said they’re also strained.

“Currently, Nebraska Medicine is operating at overcapacity,” Dr. Rupp says. “So even just a few additional patients exceed what we’re able to comfortably care for and starts to really stress the system, that’s why this year I don’t think we can count on not having a flu season like we did last year.”

In the 2019-2020 flu season, CHI Health’s system saw 64 flu patients. Quimby said sometimes it’s more, and sometimes it’s less. But with this year’s early spike in RSV, doctors are struggling to predict if the flu will be the same.

“I can tell you from personal experience there is much less distancing and masking than last fall, and we’ve already shown that one respiratory illness this year has gone off like gangbusters — RSV — so if there was something that is unseasonable or higher than normal, that would put a strain on people.”

Drs. Rupp and Quimby say they haven’t seen that spike with the flu yet, but it can’t be ruled out.

“Whether we have an early season or a late season, truly is anybody’s guess. what I like to say is influenza is predictably unpredictable,” Dr. Rupp said.

“So, anything we can do to prevent would be useful, flu shots are available,” Dr. Quimby said.

This year’s flu shot, like most years, is a guess, too they say.

“Normally, they — for the average flu shot — it’s three strains of flu. The ones this year are called ‘quadrivalent,’ ” Quimby says. “They have four strains of flu in there, and it’s always a guessing game if the circulating one is going to be matching what’s in the vaccine, although there is some cross-coverage, it doesn’t have to be perfect. The more things that are in the shot, the better chance you have of having a hit.”

“They’ve made a few tweaks in the formulation of the vaccine compared to last year, so this year we’ll have two A strains in the vaccine, and H1N1 and H3N2, and then we’ll also have to B strains in the vaccine,’ Rupp says.

Drs. Rupp and Quimby say the best way to help local healthcare workers is by getting vaccinated for both COVID-19 and the flu, especially for those who are high-risk.

“They do not prevent all cases of flu, but they do tend to make people much less sick if you do happen to catch it after you’re vaccinated,” Dr. Quimby said.

“I think the misperceptions that people often have is that influenza is a mild disease and that it doesn’t have an impact and people shouldn’t get vaccinated, but the fact of the matter is that on an average year, influenza kills about 24 to 25,000 people in the US each year, and even young and healthy people, about 10-15% of them can have a complication of flu,” Dr. Rupp said.

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