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Chicago's Overwhelmed EDs

Flu, RSV and gastrointestinal virus force seven EDs to briefly reroute ambulances.

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On Jan. 8, the notorious flu of 2013 combined with widely circulating respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and gastrointestinal viruses to force seven Chicago area emergency departments to go on bypass status.

All facilities have since reopened their doors to ambulances after having to re-route them from hospitals including Northwestern Memorial Hospital, University of Chicago Medical Center, Swedish Covenant Hospital and Rockford Memorial Hospital in the far northwest corner of the metropolitan area.

According to Melaney Arnold, spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Public Health, hospitals in the state make the decision to go on diversion independently and then report their status to the local EMS and the department of health. Diversion status can change multiple times throughout the day. Although it's not the first time several area hospitals put their ED on bypass during the same time period, she admitted it's uncommon.

"For a period of time, these hospitals decided they were at capacity and didn't have beds or staffing to handle more ambulances," she clarified. "On Jan. 8, we were getting lots of reports of an overwhelming number of respiratory illnesses hitting hospitals at once."

Fighting Flu

Though the flu wasn't solely responsible for closing off ambulance traffic in the area, local statistics point to a highly intense flu season.

According to Debbie Avalos, BSN, RN, clinical coordinator of Northwestern Memorial's ED, the number of flu cases is higher than last year, especially in the month of January. She speculates that the publicity surrounding the 2013 flu season may have led to more consciousness of the possibility of flu infection.

University of Chicago Medical Center spokesperson Tiffani Washington said her facility's Jan. 8 diversion was caused by many diagnoses as well, but this has been a record year for the flu.

"As of Jan. 7, we've had 166 flu cases present in the ED," she noted. "That compares to just one instance of flu in the ED at this time last year and that case came around Jan. 12."

Mary Alice Lavin, MJ, RN, CIC, said Rush University Medical Center, one of the city hospitals that did not go on bypass partially because of its recently expanded ED, has seen a massive flu upswing this year as well. Ironically, staff has been so busy treating patients for flu, RSV and gastrointestinal illness that they couldn't take time to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the new medical center.

"We started to see an increase in flu patients on Nov. 5," she stated. "As of the week of Jan. 14, we have seen a total of 200 patients with flu symptoms. Last year, we saw 119 for the entire season."

Though experts differ on whether the flu season has peaked, there are a few bright spots, notably growing acceptance of the flu shot and no reported vaccination shortages.

Although Northwestern Memorial's Avalos said asking about flu shots is not part of the nursing assessment, she and the other hospital representatives interviewed said that, anecdotally speaking, there seems to be a higher vaccination rate this year.

Furthermore, there has been no reported vaccine shortage even with the late rush to inoculate, said LaMar Hasbouck, Illinois Department of Public Health director, in a press conference last week. Though he acknowledged some spot shortages, he said the immunization is still available at doctor's offices, drug stores and clinics.

Though Rush has seen a late flu shot rush this year, Lavin doesn't anticipate running out.

"We've contacted the distributor and requested our doses earlier in the week," she said. "There's an adequate supply so we're just constantly making sure it's in the clinics and places within our system it needs to be"

Robin Hocevar is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact:

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