By Andrew Kitchenman
In some areas of New Jersey the flu has already reached crisis proportions, and many fear the worst is yet to come. Monday's meeting of the Assembly's Health and Senior Services Committee focused on ways the state can help relieve overextended and overwhelmed hospitals and doctors.
Physicians and legislators also discussed steps everyone can take to lessen the severity of this year's flu season.
Dr. Shelley Greenman, an emergency medicine physician at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, struck the appropriate note when she said she has never seen anything like the number and range of flu cases that she has encountered this year.
Her colleague, Dr. Rick Hong, Cooper’s head of emergency medical services and disaster medicine, offered an even blunter assessment.
“It scares me a little bit as to what we’re seeing now,” Hong said of the increased admissions for flu.
He added that the hospital is considering activating the plans it made after the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. That could include using areas outside of the emergency department, possibly including conference rooms, to treat patients.
Hong said that while these steps may seem drastic, “if we have to do it that way, we have to do it that way.”
“We are trying to get a global picture in the state as to what is happening,” said Diane Anderson, the New Jersey Hospital Associations’ emergency preparedness director, noting that some emergency departments still have open beds.
The association, Anderson said, is working closely with state Department of Health officials, letting primary care doctors know that patients shouldn’t be sent to emergency rooms unless they have acute symptoms.
Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) addressed the problem of overcrowded hospitals from another perspective, discussing the tension between running an efficient statewide hospital system in which beds are filled and having enough beds available for a flu outbreak.
“We’re being impacted by having a number of hospitals drop out of the system,” Conaway said of closures in recent years. Hong agreed, stating that while hospitals are doing what they can to provide beds, “we can’t just make hospitals happen.”
Greenman concurred. “The unprecedented influx of patients is taxing an already overwhelmed system,” she said, leaving nowhere for flu patients to go.
“We may well have yet to see the worst of this year’s outbreak,” she said.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that the flu outbreak has also overburdened many primary care doctors, making it difficult for them to relieve the pressure on hospital emergency departments.