Space is scarce at Fairview Ridges, where a mounting flu epidemic is filling hospital beds in the emergency room, and the high volume of flu patients could continue unabated until early spring, officials say.
The 150-bed hospital is a regional hub for the south metro, which is in the throes of the worst flu season in years.
"We have been at or near our bed capacity for a few weeks now, since the flu surge started around Christmas and it's continued," said Carol Koeppel-Olson, an RN and the vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Fairview Ridges. "I don't think we have peaked yet."
All but a handful of U.S. states have reported a dramatic increase in flu-related illnesses. As of the latest report from the Minnesota Department of Health, over 500 people have been hospitalized due to the flu since the season began in October. At least five have died, including two otherwise healthy teens: Max Schwolert, 17, and Carly Christenson, a 14-year-old St. Louis Park girl who died on Tuesday.
Koeppel-Olson not aware of any flu-related fatalities in Burnsville, but there is little doubt that influenza is behind the increase in patient load at Fairview Ridges. She estimated that flu was the culprit in 10 to 25 percent of the cases in the emergency room and urgent care.
"It's sort of difficult to say because we're not testing everyone for the flu. That wouldn't be cost effective," Koeppel-Olson said.
Fairview Ridges isn't the only medical facility seeing an influx of flu cases. The Urgency Rooms in Eagan and Woodbury have experienced a substantial rise in flu patients over the last two weeks, according to Urgency Room founder and owner Dr. Gary Gosewisch.
The flow of flu patients has been so heavy that Gosewisch increased staffing levels by 35 percent at the Woodbury facility to help manage the extra patients. It's a measure Gosewisch may also implement in Eagan, although that facility is experiencing a lower patient load.
“They’re through the roof, and I mean that in all sincerity," Gosewisch said, referring to flu patients.
This year stands in contrast to the previous season, 2011-2012, when the hospital saw few flu-related admissions, Koeppel-Olson said. The current outbreak is comparable to the spike in H1N1 cases that occurred during 2009.
"This is worse than H1N1. It only lasted a few weeks and this will last several months," Koeppel-Olson said. "I have read information from the CDC that says it might be March before it dies down."
In the meantime, the hospital cannot increase the number of beds, even on a provisional basis, due to licensing restrictions. Instead, the staff at Ridges has been coordinating with other hospitals in the Fairview family to transfer patients out when beds are full.
So far, officials at Ridges have not changed hospital protocol nor have they imposed restrictions on visitors, though other hospitals in Minnesota have. The Star Tribune reports that hospitals in southern Minnesota have limited access to visitors for the first time since 2009.
Koeppel-Olson did ask potential visitors to stay away if they're experiencing flu-like symptoms like nausea, vomiting, chills or fever. She also noted that most healthy adults should not require hospitalization should they contract the flu. The illness is particularly hazardous for those whose health is already compromised by an existing condition, such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma. Pregnant women, seniors and small children are also especially vulnerable to influenza.
Such people should be seen by a professional, "but the rest of us ... there probably isn't a point in coming to emergency or even urgent care. There are medicines you can buy it over the counter to fight the flu," Koeppel-Olson said.
Gosewisch believes the early outbreak of the flu this year may be in part due to the holiday season. Children are cloistered in classrooms during the school year, but during the holiday season, they and other family members intermingle and can become exposed to the virus, Gosewisch said.
If patients want to spare themselves a bout of influenza, Koeppel-Olson recommended plenty of sleep, fluids and handwashing—a vigorous, 60-second scrub with soap and hot water. And one more thing: Cover that cough.