Flu cases double at Bellevue, Doctors say: Just get the shot

Bellevue Hospital offers the flu vaccine free to New Yorkers without insurance or who are under-insured throughout flu season.

By Sabina Mollot

Over 5,000 New Yorkers have become bedridden with the flu this season, according to Senator Charles Schumer.

Calling it a “historic outbreak,” on Monday, Schumer called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to designate a special “domestic flu surveillance team” for the state, which he believes will help “augment the work of inundated hospitals and budget-strained localities.”

Locally, the increase is being seen at Bellevue Hospital, where doctors have already seen 200 patients with confirmed cases of the flu, up from 100 for the entire season last year. Out of the 200 positive tests, 60 people were admitted to the hospital, while the rest went home. In a typical season, 100 people come in with the flu and 20-40 get admitted.

This season, at Bellevue, patients with either confirmed or suspected flu are being separated from the general population to help prevent it from spreading.

However, Dr. Joseph Carter, associate medical director at Bellevue, seemed wary of calling even a 100 percent increase a crisis, because, he argued, every flu season is serious. He also said it’s hard to offer stats while flu season is still active.

“What I can say is we’re seeing more patients with the flu and testing more patients than in previous years,” Carter said. “I do think more people are getting the flu, but it’s a moderate increase, not a catastrophic increase.”

The cases the hospital is most concerned about involve vulnerable patients — children younger than five, pregnant women, people 65 and older and people living in nursing homes or other care centers.

Carter also dismissed claims of the flu vaccine being less effective this year.

“You never know how effective the vaccine is until the end of the season,” he said.

He added that every year the hospital sees patients who don’t get vaccinated because they believe it’s useless or even harmful, a view that’s even sometimes been shared by hospital faculty members. However, according to Carter, the rate at which patients have an adverse reaction to the vaccine is “about the same as a reaction to a placebo injection. But every year there are stories like that.”

Additionally, Carter believes the vaccine is especially useful at this time.

“This year’s vaccine should be even more effective against the strains later on (in the season). In general, different types of strains occur earlier and later, so it includes several different strains on the flu. It’s designed to help with all the strains. That’s why we encourage people to get it.”

It of course doesn’t help with every strain, but Carter stressed that it’s always advisable for patients six months old and up to get one unless they have egg allergies or a rare condition called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which causes the immune system to attack the nerves.

Flu season started in October, but according to Carter, if people still want to get a shot, “You’re absolutely not too late.” The shot, however, takes two weeks to become effective, so before that point, a person is still vulnerable.

New Yorkers with no insurance or who are under-insured can get the vaccine for free at Bellevue or the other hospitals in the NYC Health + Hospitals network while flu season is ongoing.

Still, the best medicine is prevention, and Carter said the well-known tips on avoiding the virus have not changed. 1) Get the shot. 2) Wash and disinfect hands frequently, before eating and after a ride home and “whenever they appear dirty.” 3) When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth and follow up with hand hygiene.

Also taking note of the record increase in cases of the flu this season was Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed an order on Friday to allow pharmacists to give flu shots to people ages 2-18, instead of just 18 and up.

According to the stats from his office, over the past week, 7,779 confirmed influenza cases were reported to the state and 1,759 New Yorkers have been hospitalized with confirmed influenza, the highest weekly numbers in both categories since reporting began in 2004 and surpassing last week’s previous high of 1,606 hospitalizations.

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