Local hospitals are full or nearly full because of the flu, which has hit Texarkana and the rest of the country especially hard this year.
Wadley Regional Medical Center in Texarkana and Hope, Ark., and CHRISTUS St. Michael Health System in Texarkana and Atlanta, Texas, are operating at or near capacity. Emergency room wait times are also longer than usual.
"We're full," said Shelby Brown, Wadley director of marketing. "I can't attribute that all to the flu. We have cases of pneumonia and other illnesses. We've got all types. And while we certainly want to encourage anyone who needs to be seen to come to the emergency room, there may be longer waits. The best thing, if possible, is for people to see their primary care doctor."
Wadley reports 112 confirmed flu cases, while St. Michael has seen 135 at its main campus and 36 at its Atlanta campus.
Because of the high incidence of flu, health care professionals encourage limiting time with infected people.
"We encourage calling or texting, because you can hopefully limit your exposure by not visiting people in the hospital who can still be contagious even when they're getting better," said Francine Francis, director of communications at St. Michael. "We also have hand-washing stations outside every patient room, and we're really encouraging use of those by visitors when they come and go. Hand-washing is one of the most crucial components to avoiding the flu, so really being diligent about hand-washing is critical."
Wadley officials are also recommending visiting hospital patients with caution.
"If you have any symptoms, obviously don't visit people in the hospital," Brown said. "People just need to know you're infectious 24-hours before you start getting symptoms. Unless it's an immediate family member, it's probably safer for you and the patient if you make a phone call to check on them instead of coming in, but for those who do we have masks at all entrances to the hospital."
This year's circulating flu viruses seem to be more severe than in recent years.
"What we have noticed is it has affected people of all ages," said Dr. Matt Young, physician-owner and medical director of Texarkana Emergency Center. "We're still predominantly talking about pediatric patients, elderly patients and those with chronic illnesses that may require hospitalization because of a secondary illness from the flu. However, this year we're seeing it a little more in otherwise healthy individuals that may not have been exposed to the virus in the last several years where we've had very minimal flu seasons."
Young said this year's virus seems to spread rapidly. Most of the country is experiencing the highest level of flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We do agree that it seems to spread very easily. We also think that may be related to the last several flu seasons being very minimal resulting in us not developing resistance to exposure like we've had in the past," Young said.
Besides hand-washing, vaccination is another preventative measure against the flu, even though this year's vaccine may not match the viruses circulating.
"The CDC does a great job with medical-based evidence to make sure the vaccine has the best 'guesstimate' of strains of the flu we're going to be exposed to, but those can change and mutate as the virus spreads," Young said. "We still say the flu vaccine is well worth it. It could be anywhere from 10 to 60 percent effective depending on which website you look at, but it will still provide you some protection."
Staying home when sick also prevents the illness from spreading.
"If someone is running a fever, we recommend they excuse themselves from social obligations—including work, school, church or other activities—to prevent spreading the virus," Young said.