DCH Health System is asking people to limit visits to patients and wear masks among other precautions while visiting its hospitals as a result of a statewide outbreak of influenza.
“We are asking folks to cooperate by restricting visiting,” DCH communication director Brad Fisher said.
DCH announced the recommend guidelines to reduce the risk of spreading influenza on Friday, a day after Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state public health emergency because of the flu outbreak, which is taxing the capacity of hospitals statewide.
The governor’s declaration on Thursday was meant to raise the level of awareness about the situation and make it easier for hospitals to be more flexible in how they respond to certain types of problems, said Scott Harris, acting state health officer.
Hospitals can activate emergency operation plans and use alternative standards of care to treat patients, Harris said. Harris used the example of flu patients who typical receive fluids intravenously being given fluids orally.
Citing an effort to limit the spread of the flu, DCH is asking visitors to:
• Limit themselves to one visitor per patient
• Wash their hands, cover coughs and wear masks, which are available from dispensers in the lobbies or from staff.
The hospital is also asking people who have flu-like symptoms and children younger than 14 years old not to visit patients.
While the guidelines are not mandatory, they are strongly recommended, Fisher said.
DCH is not diverting patients nor canceling elective surgeries at this point, Fisher said.
UAB Hospital is rescheduling non-emergency elective operations to help free up bed space.
Harris and other officials on Friday encouraged people with flu-like symptoms to avoid seeking care at emergency rooms unless it was absolutely necessary.
“If you need to seek emergency care by all means to do that,” Harris said.
But if flu symptoms are less severe, Harris asked people to seek care at a primary care physician or urgent care facility to reduce the burden on hospital emergency rooms.
To help reduce the burden on hospitals and health care facilities, Harris said the state health department is also encouraging employers and schools to consider waiving policies that require doctor’s notes from employees to justify absences from work of illness.
The Alabama Public Health Department said many hospitals statewide are at or above their normal capacity due in large part to patients with influenza-like symptoms. At this time, the outbreak is not a pandemic, the department of health said.
In seven of the state’s eight public health areas, about 90 percent of hospital beds are filled, Harris said.
“We have a critical situation going on with the number of patients infected with influenza,” he said.
The outbreak is normal seasonal flu, but the state is seeing numerous positive cases reported, Harris said.
Since early December, the public health department has noted widespread influenza activity in the state. The state reported significant activity in five of the eight public health districts last week.
Last week, DCH reported 119 positive cases of flu, according to data released this week. DCH conducted 516 tests during the week. During the same week last year, the hospital reported 31 positive cases out of 300 tests. The rate is similar to 2013-14 when DCH recorded 106 positive cases during the first week of the year.
“From the reports I have gotten, it is has been a little bit high,” said Tommy Dockery, director for emergency preparedness for the West Central District for Alabama Department of Public Health. “But nothing unusual. Pretty much every year, you are going to have peaks and valleys.”
People should use common sense in their response to the flu and not panic about the governor’s declaration, Dockery said.
“Stay at home if you are sick. We can’t stress that enough,” Dockery said.
A large private school in metro Birmingham, Briarwood Christian, canceled classes on Friday because of a large number of sick students and employees.
Dockery, Harris and other health officials reiterated vaccines remain the best precaution for avoiding the flu.
“The most important thing I can remind you of is to please get vaccinated,” Harris said. “The sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner you are protected.”
The state health department is planning to open flu clinics in county health departments next week to provide vaccines, Harris said. Harris did not provide additional information Friday about which counties would open clinics nor when.
Based on the limited store of vaccines, Dockery said he did not expect Tuscaloosa County to open a clinic. However, some counties in west central Alabama were working on plans for clinics to provide vaccines, he said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Reach Ed Enoch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0209.