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Busy flu season prompts local hospital to turn to mobile unit

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With the number of flu-related deaths in South Carolina now at 84, one local hospital has turned to an unusual solution to help handle patient volume.

Palmetto Health Richland began using a temporary mobile unit to expedite patient discharges on Thursday. Patients who are well enough to leave the hospital go through the discharge process and wait for transportation inside the large, enclosed tent, provided by the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Midlands Public Healthcare Coalition.

“This gives us an option to free up some inpatient beds,” said Steve Shelton, Palmetto Health’s medical director of emergency management and an emergency room physician.

DHEC statistics show that 52 hospitals reported 601 influenza-associated patient admissions, a cumulative hospitalization rate of 47.7 people per 100,000, in the seventh week of widespread flu activity. The number of reported hospitalizations increased by 129, or 27.3%.

For the entire 2016-17 flu season, DHEC reported 2,490 hospitalizations and 94 deaths.

Shelton spoke during a quick phone interview outside the hospital.

“It’s busy,” he said. “I don’t know if this flu season is the worst. The health care situation we’re in with lots of patients, lots of sick people, lots of admissions to the hospital on a daily basis – this was just kind of the straw on the camel’s back.”

Shelton stressed that it’s not too late to get a flu vaccination, which can both prevent people from getting the flu and lessen symptoms. He also urged high-risk groups – people under the age of 5 and above 65, pregnant women and those with chronic medical problems – to consult their primary care physicians about treatment options if they become sick.

Shortness of breath, confusion, dehydration or a recurrence of more severe symptoms are potentially serious and should be checked out by a doctor, Shelton said.

Those with the flu should limit their contact with others, cover coughs and wash or sanitize hands often.

Last week, Palmetto Health initiated visitor restrictions to help prevent spread of the flu. Visitors under age 18 require special permission, and only two adults may visit a patient at a time. People experiencing flu-like symptoms are asked not to come to the hospital.

Influenza activity typically begins to increase in October and peaks between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Activity can last until May.

“We’ll get through it,” Shelton said. “We see flu cases every year and there’s years that it’s worse than others. We’re seeing some positive improvements.”

Shelton said wait times and patient numbers decreased Thursday at Palmetto Health Richland.

“That’s a plus, but CDC and DHEC have advised us that we probably haven’t seen the peak yet,” he said.

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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