Hospitals throughout Arizona are scrambling to find beds for patients needing extra care, due to an unusually widespread outbreak of the flu and other illnesses.
"This is the worst outbreak of flu in a small amount of time that I've seen in the six years I've been here," said Chris Wolf, CEO of Payson Regional Medical Center.
During February alone, the hospital's emergency room has had 1,103 visits, compared to 942 last year, said Kim Reger, director of emergency services at PRMC.
Wednesday, it was almost standing room only, she said.
Reger said complaints as of Feb. 28 include 46 respiratory cases and 22 bronchitis cases, compared to only 14 and 9 last year.
"Patients have a 50-minute wait or longer for visits to the ER," Reger said.
She said ER patients are "triaged by priority," meaning those who are the most ill are seen first.
"We reassess that priority every time someone new comes through the door," Reger said.
"No one is being turned away. We treat everyone with the best care and they are taken care of appropriately," said Hart Hintze, chief nursing officer for PRMC.
The ER is seeing overflows of patients from area doctors and people who were able to see their doctor, but are still feeling bad after completing their prescribed course of treatment, Hintze said.
The outbreak is not limited to Payson and the Rim Country. PRMC has received calls from hospitals in Prescott and Cottonwood seeking to transfer patients because they have run out of beds. PRMC has also sought permission to send patients elsewhere at different points during the last several weeks.
"Widespread" flu activity was reported in Arizona for the week ending on Feb. 23, according to a report to the Roundup by Matthew Bolinger, epidemiologist for the Gila County Health Department.
"This is the fourth straight week that Arizona has reported ‘widespread' activity," said Bolinger.
"As of Feb. 25, there have been 2,601 lab-confirmed influenza cases reported for the 2007-2008 influenza season. Of which, nine were from Gila County."
"There seems to be a few cold and stomach viruses floating around the county at present time. These are usually seasonal and expected. We have received no viral culture data from commercial or governmental laboratories confirming the presence of anything out of the ordinary," Bolinger said.
He said his department would like to remind all residents to be diligent about washing their hands, covering their coughs, and staying home when they're sick. Children should not go to school when they are feeling sick or feverish.
Health officials say it's not too late to get a flu shot, since Arizona's flu season can last as late as May.
"What's just as important is following your mother's advice -- wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and stay home from work if you are feeling ill," said Will Humble, assistant director for public health preparedness.
In Arizona, the heaviest part of flu season typically occurs in late December, January and February.
The widespread classification is used when there is an increase in flu and flu-like illnesses and recent laboratory-confirmed flu in at least half of the state's regions.
A list of flu shot providers is available at Community Information and Referral. Call (602) 263-8856 or at www.cir.org. For more information about influenza, go to www.azdhs.gov/flu or contact your health care provider or local health department.
PRMC recommends getting flu shots -- they are more often reliable than not. Use the Center for Disease Control's "Cover your Cough" flyer.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough or cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve -- not your hand. Dispose of your tissue in a wastebasket. Then clean your hands after coughing or sneezing, wash with soap and warm water for 20 seconds or clean with an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
"Immuno-compromised people just need to stay home," said Cory Houghton, spokesperson for the hospital.