Flu epidemic: Death confirmed, hospitals restrict visitation

Flu epidemic: Death confirmed, hospitals restrict visitation
Patient safety signs are visible across the Phoebe campus. (Source: WALB)
Dr. Steven Kitchen (Source: WALB)
Dr. Steven Kitchen (Source: WALB)
You can still get a flu shot (Source: WALB)
You can still get a flu shot (Source: WALB)

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - The Director of the Southwest Health District has confirmed a suspected flu death in our area, and officials with the department say the outbreak has reached epidemic proportions.

In response to that, all Phoebe hospitals are instituting new visitation restrictions to protect patients, visitors and staff and to try to reduce the spread of the illness.

Director Charles D. Ruis, MD, said the Department of Public Health has confirmed 25 flu-related deaths so far in Georgia, compared with only 9 all of last year.

"It is the best thing we have to prevent the flu and while it's not perfect," Dr. Ruis remarked.

Health officials said the vaccine is the only thing on the market to lessen your chances of getting the virus.

"There's still plenty of reason to get the vaccine to protect yourself," Phoebe Women & Children Services Medical Director, Dr. Bill Sewell added.

With the current rate of cases, health officials said the season could last through April.

Already claiming the lives of 25 in the state, health officials are puzzled by the recent spike.

"People have been getting vaccinated, at this point it's, a mystery," Dr. Ruis explained.

Children and seniors are most at-risk.

So far nine of the 25 deaths were over the age of 50.

So how do you know if you have it?

"It generally makes you feel worse than a common cold and the symptoms seem to linger a day or two longer," Dr. Sewell explained.

Tamiflu can lessen those symptoms if taken in 48 hours.

Health officials recommend residents to go to their primary doctors to avoid the long waits in the ER.

"Hopefully there are less cases going on right when you go to visit," Dr. Sewell added.

Those who haven't gotten it, there are several steps to protect yourself: washing your hands, avoiding places where the flu is active, and getting the vaccine.

Phoebe hospitals have instituted these changes, effective immediately:

  • Visiting hours will be from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m.
  • No one under the age of 18 should come to the hospital except for medical treatment.
  • No one exhibiting symptoms of the flu should visit the hospital.  Postpone all visits until you are symptom-free for 24 hours.
  • All visitors will be asked to wear masks.
  • Anyone visiting a patient in isolation will be asked to wear personal protective gear such as a gown, mask and gloves.

Dr. Steven Kitchen, Phoebe Chief Medical Officer, stressed the restrictions are designed to protect the public during this unusually severe flu season.

"We apologize for any inconvenience these new visitation restrictions may cause, but we must do all we can to minimize the spread of the flu.  We will continue to work closely with the health department to make sure we are doing all we can to protect people from this dangerous illness," said Kitchen.  Phoebe will lift the restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so."

Even though we are well into flu season, it is not too late to get a flu shot.

Phoebe Physicians will offer extended hours at multiple offices to meet increased demand as the flu outbreak in southwest Georgia continues to get worse.

All Phoebe Physicians Primary Care offices will now accept walk-in patients who do not have scheduled appointments.

The following offices also will now be open on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. and will extend their hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays to 7 p.m.

Phoebe Primary Care at Northwest
2336 Dawson Rd.
Albany, GA

Phoebe Primary Care of Albany
901 N. Madison St.
Albany, GA

Phoebe Primary Care at Medical Tower One
425 W. 3rd Ave., Suite 340
Albany, GA

Phoebe Primary Care & Sports Medicine of Americus
922 E. Jefferson St., Suite A & B
Americus, GA

These extended hours will run through at least February 8 when officials will reassess the need.

Beginning this weekend, weekend hours will also be extended at the Community Care Clinic at 417 W. 4th Ave., directly across the street from the Phoebe Main Emergency Center.  Patients will be accepted at the clinic from 9 a.m. – 9 p.m., seven days a week through the month of February.

Colquitt Regional is limiting one visitor at a time for patients. The ER will not allow visitors to the treatment area unless they are a care giver for the patient. Visitors are now required to wear masks in the patient areas to prevent spreading the flu virus.  All visitors are requested to use hand sanitizer prior to and upon exit of patient areas.

Tift Regional Health System is barring children under 18 years old from visiting the hospital, as well as people who have cold, flu-like symptoms and nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.  This is being done to protect patients, visitors, staff and the community. Tift Regional Health System is also asking that you check with your primary care provider for flu and simple gastrointestinal symptoms before you go to the emergency room.

The Health District and Phoebe officials say you should follow the following advice to stay well:

  • Avoid contact with people who have the flu.
  • Seek medical attention quickly if you develop symptoms.  Antiviral medication may shorten the severity and duration of the flu if you contract the illness.
  • If you are sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone, except to get medical care or other necessities.
  • Cover your nose and your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.  Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you are unable to wash your hands.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose to prevent germs from spreading.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces and objects.

Health professionals will have a news conference at around 3 p.m. Friday. We will bring you those updates as soon as they are available.

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