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As Flu Season Strains Hospitals, Doctor Offers Advice For How To Stay Healthy


We are in the middle of an unusually severe flu season. Here in California, we've been hit especially hard. State officials say at least 42 people have died from the flu, and that's not including senior citizens. The actual number is much higher. And thousands of Californians have sought medical help, overflowing hospital emergency rooms. One of these hospitals is Loma Linda University Health near San Bernardino.

Dr. Adrian Cotton is the chief of medical operations there, and he's with us now. Welcome.

ADRIAN COTTON: Thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So first of all, when we talk about an unusually severe flu season, I mean, just explain what that means exactly. Like, how many people are you guys seeing every day?

COTTON: So normally in our emergency department we see anywhere between 200 and 240 patients. For the last couple weeks we've been seeing closer to 290 and 300 patients a day.

MCEVERS: And so this increase has forced you to do some things that are usually reserved for special emergency situations. Sort of talk about some of those.

COTTON: So the first thing people will notice if they drive up to Loma Linda is they'll see a tent out in front of the emergency room. That is not routinely there. We put this tent up on January 3 of this year. It can hold about 20 patients. We've used it pretty much every day since January 3. We've probably had 150 patients total that have gone through there.

MCEVERS: And a tent like this is called a surge tent. It's normally reserved for major disasters, right?

COTTON: Yes. And I think we could call the flu season this year a major disaster.

MCEVERS: Do you think you need assistance from the state or federal government at this point? I mean, has it gotten that bad?

COTTON: I think it has. And we've actually gotten some permission from both the local county and the state Department of Public Health to actually flex some of our beds from rehab to use them for acute care patients. The estimate is the flu season is going to continue to get worse for the next couple of weeks. If that happens and all the hospitals are overwhelmed, yes, there may be some need for either state or county or federal help.

MCEVERS: This strain of the flu, of course, is pretty bad. It's called H3N2. And from what we know, the flu shot is just about 30 percent effective against this strain. I mean, do you still recommend a shot for people?

COTTON: So the flu vaccine - the CDC tries to guess each year what they think the major strains of the flu will be that comes through. This year, they guessed that it would be the H1 strain. And so the flu vaccine is actually protective against the H1 strain, but has very little protection against H3N2. We still do recommend people get the flu shot because, again, there's still H1 influenza out there, and this will protect those patients.

And also, if you've had the flu shot, it will probably make even if you get H3N2 a slightly less virulent disease than if you haven't had it. There's also protection for years to come where if you've had the flu vaccine this year and next year happens to be H1, this year's vaccine will actually help protect you for next year.

MCEVERS: Oh, wow. What else can people do to protect themselves against this H3 strain in particular?

COTTON: So the No. 1 thing people can do is wash their hands, wash their hands and wash their hands. Stay away from people that have active flu-like symptoms, which is fevers, chills, heavy cough. But washing hands is probably the biggest thing that can be done. And then No. 2 is get the influenza vaccine. And then the third thing we're telling people is if you think you have the flu, please don't go to the emergency room. Please find - call your primary care doctor and go see them first. And, you know, save the emergency room for if you're really, really sick.

MCEVERS: Do you have a sense of why California has been so hard-hit? I mean, you're there on the ground dealing with patients.

COTTON: So usually when you look at what the flu does in the U.S., it kind of starts on the East Coast and kind of slowly goes across the country. And California kind of gets it by February, March timeframe. If you look at the CDC flu map for this year, it kind of went across the country all of a sudden in two weeks. And it just - it's widespread everywhere in the country in a two-week time period, which - again, this is highly unusual.

MCEVERS: Dr. Adrian Cotton is the chief of medical operations at Loma Linda University Health in San Bernardino. Thank you so much.

COTTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.