By Patrick Svitek
11:58 AM CST, January 8, 2013
Seven Chicago-area hospitals have had to send ambulances elsewhere this morning as they deal with an influx of patients with flu-like symptoms.
As of 9:45 a.m., the hospitals remained on bypass status, which means their emergency rooms are at capacity and non-critical patients are being re-routed to other hospitals, said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The Chicago-area hospitals included Northwestern Memorial Hospital, University of Chicago Medical Center and Swedish Covenant Hospital. Rockford Memorial Hospital was the only hospital outside of Chicago on bypass.
Arnold cautioned that number is changing hourly as hospitals go on and off bypass and shuffle around patients.
At Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which has since gone off bypass, the decision was largely driven by flu patients who did not require medical attention, said Dr. David Zich, an internal and emergency medicine physician.
"The flu in and of itself is not a reason to come to the emergency department," he said, noting an ER visit is "not necessary" unless the flu is coupled with a shortness of breath or another serious illness, such as heart disease.
Zich said going on bypass is "unusual but not extremely rare" for the hospital. He estimated it happens about 14 times a year.
The flu season — both locally and nationally — is off to its earliest and most active start in nearly a decade, health officials have said. The season typically runs from mid-December through March and peaks during the second half of January. Hospitals started seeing larger-than-expected numbers of people with the flu in early December, and officials are not sure when this season will peak.
Dr. Julie Morita, medical director for Chicago's health department, said in an email this morning that the number of flu cases in the city is still rising.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Illinois among 29 states experiencing "high" flu activity through the last week of 2012. As of Dec. 29, the CDC categorized the illness as "widespread" in 41 states.
From Sept. 30 to the end of 2012, nearly 100 flu sufferers spent time in intensive care units of Chicago hospitals with flu-like symptoms, according to the city's Department of Public Health. Last year, only one person had been sent to the ICU with the flu in about the same time period.
The strain of influenza largely responsible for the overnight burst of hospital visits tends to be “a little more severe than others,” Arnold said.
Arnold said anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms should first contact their health care provider or local health department.
One of those people include, Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti who has come down with a case of the flu. His illness has forced him to withdraw from this week's CSO subscription concerts at Symphony Center.
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