Flu cases spread through Washington region

Local,Maryland,Kate Jacobson

An early and unusually strong flu season has caused a spike in flu-related illnesses in the Washington region, with feverish, sneezing residents rushing to their nearest emergency room.

In Maryland, more infected residents have gone to the emergency room with the flu already this year than during all of last year's flu season, which peaks in January and February. More than 2,300 of the 50,680 visitors to the state's emergency rooms have been diagnosed with influenzalike illnesses. Hospitals in the District reported 310 confirmed cases, according to data from the D.C. Health Department.

This year's flu season has been more severe than previous years. Flu cases nationwide are 26 times higher than last flu season, with the epidemic spreading to 44 states. Flu-related deaths have been reported across the country, including 27 in Minnesota, 22 in Pennsylvania and 18 in Massachusetts. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency, and one Kentucky county canceled school for the rest of the week because of the outbreak.

Hospitals in both Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland are reporting large numbers of patients in emergency rooms complaining of flu symptoms.

"We have experienced a high volume of people in our emergency department," said Erika Murray, spokeswoman for Prince George's County's Dimensions Healthcare System which runs Prince George's Hospital Center and Laurel Regional Hospital, adding that the health care network doesn't track patients admitted with the flu, just ER data.

In Virginia, the Department of Health reported "widespread activity" of flu, and local hospitals agree they've seen an influx of cases. Tony Raker, a spokesman for Northern Virginia-based Inova Health System, said its 13 hospitals have seen a 27 percent increase in people coming to the emergency room with symptoms.

Despite being busier, he said, the hospital is not facing a shortage of the flu vaccine and will be offering three more free vaccine clinics to the public in the coming week.

"It's nothing we can't handle," he said.

Hospitals in Montgomery County also are not seeing shortages of vaccines -- Adventist HealthCare in Rockville is offering free vaccine clinics throughout the month, for example.

Murray said because of the surge, Dimensions' site in Laurel will be offering free vaccinations on Tuesday from 2 to 7 p.m.

Area pharmacies and groceries, such as CVS, said they were experiencing an influx of customers seeking flu shots, and some stores reported being out of vaccines. A clerk at the Walgreens on 14th Street Northwest said her store hadn't run out of vaccines yet, but other stores -- like the one on 22nd and M streets -- were out and sending customers their way.

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