RMC flu

Visitors at Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center in downtown Anniston wear masks exiting the hospital heading to their cars due to the widespread concern over the flu outbreak. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

Calhoun County’s three hospitals limited patient visits and asked that all employees and visitors wear medical masks beginning Friday to curb flu infections that have spiked in recent weeks.

The precautions come as the Alabama Department of Public Health reported Friday that hospitals are at 90 percent capacity in seven of eight state health districts in part because of the flu outbreak. Anniston’s Regional Medical Center and Stringfellow Memorial Hospital, along with RMC Jacksonville, have seen far more cases of flu than normal for this time of year and want to limit infections so the hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with patients.

Louis Bass, CEO of RMC, which operates all three hospitals, said the goal is to slow the spread of the flu before it becomes more than hospitals can handle.

“What we are seeing in the emergency room both here and Stringfellow is they’re being pretty well bombarded,” Bass said. “Most of our beds have been filled ... we’re running a very tight ship right now.”

As part of the new temporary restrictions, residents are being asked not to visit any of the three hospitals unless absolutely necessary.

Only two adults will be allowed to visit any patient at one time. Also, since children are more vulnerable to the flu, those under 12 years old are temporarily prohibited from hospital visits.

For those who must visit, protective masks will be provided for free at the front doors of the hospitals. Also, all hospital employees are being asked to wear masks.

Health officials have said the current flu isn’t much different from strains in previous years, but the vaccine for it appears less effective, contributing to the rise in infections. Still, health officials recommend residents get a flu shot since it is still partially effective.

Bass said that in just the first 11 days of the year, emergency room visits at RMC and Stringfellow were up 25 percent from normal.

Dr. Raul Magadia, RMC’s infectious disease medical officer, said that between Dec. 1 and Jan. 11, RMC in Anniston and its Occupational Health and Wellness Clinic have seen 265 cases of possible flu. Stringfellow saw another 164 cases during that time. Flu case numbers for RMC Jacksonville were unavailable Friday.

“That’s phenomenally higher than usual,” Magadia said. “Normally we see only about half that by this time of year.”

Magadia said, however, that while the county and state have seen more  cases of the flu than average, the situation hadn’t reached pandemic levels.

“But we are preparing for the worst-case scenario,” Magadia said.

In a Friday press conference Scott Harris, acting state health officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said that hospitals in seven of eight health districts are at 90 percent capacity and requested residents with the flu avoid emergency rooms unless absolutely necessary. The press conference followed Gov. Kay Ivey’s declaration of a public health emergency for the state Thursday.

Harris said the department would do its part to assist hospitals.

“Starting next week we will have county health departments opening flu clinics,” Harris said.

Elaine Davis, RMC’s chief nursing officer, said the hospital had started registering its bed capacity with the state — letting officials know if RMC could handle possible overflow from other hospitals.

“Every morning we will go in and load our capacity into the system,” Davis said.

To help with the influx of flu patients, RMC is requesting patients visit clinics or their private doctors instead of the emergency room for flu treatment unless absolutely necessary.

Bass noted that all of RMC’s clinics would be open Monday during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to help with any possible patient overflow.

The county’s hospitals aren’t alone in dealing with the flu virus.

Lesa Cotton, health services director for the Calhoun County Schools system, said county schools were seeing a jump in flu activity.

“We’ve only been back from vacation for four days and we’ve already seen an increase in flu,” Cotton said.

Cotton said the system is pushing more flu prevention education to students, such as reminders to wash their hands and how to cover their coughs. The schools are also sending letters to parents to let them know about reported flu cases in classrooms.

“And we’re telling them if their children are showing signs or symptoms of the flu, to keep them home,” she said.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.