While the Centers for Disease Control counts Virginia as one of the states seeing a spike in flu cases, flu is not a reportable disease, so hard numbers are difficult to come by. But Inova, the largest hospital system in Northern Virginia, is seeing a spike in the number of flu patients visiting their emergency rooms, a spokesman said.
And across the area, it's the same story — three times as many — a county spokesman said.
Inova announced Friday it was restricting hospital visitation to avoid an outbreak.
"We, like everyone else in the Metro region, have experienced an uptick over the past four weeks in both outpatient visits to our EDs [emergency rooms] as well as in-patient placements for those with flu-related complications," said Tony Raker, public relations director for Inova Hospitals in Northern Virginia.
Members of the Inova hospital staff are advising patients to contact their primary care physicians for consultation, Raker said. If someone's doctor is unavailable, a flu patient should seek out an urgent care or CVS Minute Clinic to save costs associated with a trip to the emergency room, he said.
"Coming to the ED [emergency room] is expensive only to be told in most cases what to obtain over the counter to ease symptoms," he said.
However, three specific patient categories should seek immediate physician care, he warned:
1) children under 5
2) those 65 or older
3) women who are pregnant.
All others should be watching for dehydration, usually as a result of excessive vomiting – and should also seek immediate medical attention, he said.
Could something like what's happening in Boston — where there are 700 confirmed cases and local officials are declaring a public health emergency — happen here? If it did, Inova would be ready, Raker said.
"As to the Boston situation, our five hospitals have all positioned both physically and from a staffing perspective to avoid such a scenario," Raker said. "We are offering masks for those coughing who are coming in to our hospitals, but that is voluntary. We have adjusted working hours to cover additional care requirements – not unlike an inclement weather situation."
Just how many cases are there in Virginia?
The number of people who have reported to hospital emergency rooms in the Northern Region of Virginia with Influenza-like illnesses (ILI) in recent weeks is about three times higher than the number of people who typically show up in ERs with ILI symptoms throughout the year, according to Glen Barbour, public safety information officer for Fairfax County.
"A more accurate indication of the level of flu activity is the number of people who present at hospital emergency departments with flu-like illness," he said. (Symptoms of influenza include fever plus a cough and/or sore throat, feeling feverish/chills, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue/ tiredness.)
"In any case, any reporting of the number of flu cases is likely to be inaccurate because we know that there are likely many more people in the community who have flu—thousands more," he said.
"Flu activity is high in our community and a person may never know where he or she was exposed to flu as they go throughout their daily routines, so taking the four precautions is important for everyone," Barbour said. Those four are: Get an annual flu shot, wash hands often, cover coughs and sneezes and stay home when sick.
Flu vaccine still widely available in Northern Virginia
Flu vaccine this year is still widely available in the community, Barbour noted. People can get vaccinated at pharmacies, doctors’ offices, or the county health department. On the Fairfax County website, there is a “flu finder,” an online tool that people can use to find vaccine providers near them by entering their ZIP code.
The Fairfax County health department offers flu shots to the general public for $25. There are some federal programs like the Vaccine for Children’s program where eligible children can obtain a flu vaccine for free. Most insurance covers flu shots and Medicaid in Virginia also covers flu shots.
The Health Department has flu vaccine available, including flu mist vaccine, at its five district offices. (Find a location near you here.)
"We encourage everyone six months and older to receive an annual flu vaccine because it is the best protection against the flu," Barbour said.
CVS offers a "flu shot locator" here.
Inova is offering flu vaccinations the next three weekends:
Inova Fairfax Hospital
- Saturday: 9 a.m. to Noon – Women’s Health Atrium
- Jan. 26: 9 a.m. to Noon – Women’s Health Atrium
Inova Fair Oaks Hospital
- Jan. 19: 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. – Medical Plaza Building, Conference Room B
Why this season's flu seems worse than others
"It seems that flu season arrived about one month sooner than in recent years and that flu activity in our area became widespread sooner in the than it usually does," Barbour said. "Typically, we do eventually see widespread flu activity each year. I cannot say whether this year’s flu is 'worse' than others, but I can say that we have seen an increase in the number of people showing up at hospitals with flu-like symptoms."
Read more about this year's flu season.