Triangle hospitals face capacity strain as cases of flu, RSV increase

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Thursday, November 10, 2022
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Cases of flu and respiratory illnesses continue to increase, creating strain in Triangle hospitals.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Cases of flu and respiratory illnesses continue to increase, creating strain in Triangle hospitals.

The CDC lists flu activity in North Carolina as very high, as the Southeast continues to be hit the hardest. NCDHHS reported the percent of emergency department visits for influenza-like illness increased for the ninth straight week and is now three times higher than it was in late September.

"We're seeing a lot of patients and their families come in, really with difficulty breathing. Really younger-aged kids, 2 to 4 years old," said Dr. Benny Joyner, Chief of Critical Care Medicine at UNC Children's Hospital in Chapel Hill.

"I think the concerning feature that would make me be like 'oh I need to take my kid to get evaluated or the hospital' is if they're having a shortage of breath at rest," said Dr. Adia Ross, Hospital Medicine Specialist at Duke Health.

In a statement, a UNC Health spokesperson told ABC11:

Across UNC Health, we are seeing more flu and RSV - in our hospitals, urgent care clinics and primary care practices. At UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill last week, they confirmed nearly 400 flu cases and 200 RSV cases. The Pediatric ICU remains very busy and full. Our UNC Children's clinical team continues to work with other hospitals across the state to make sure kids who need critical care can get it.

"We certainly haven't been able to accept all the referrals that have been requested of us. We try to take in whether it's through our emergency department or other areas as many patients as we can, but unfortunately, we have had to say, 'we don't have room available right now,'" said Joyner.

A Duke Health spokesperson told ABC11 that both ICUs are full, and they may have a handful of floor beds. Their pediatric Emergency Department is seeing a record number of cases a day (above 60/day compared to 40-45/day).

As temperatures drop, concerns are growing the strain on capacity could continue.

"When it gets cold, people tend to gather inside and so you're more likely to be in close contact with folks, so it actually makes it easier for you to get a respiratory virus," said Ross.

Joyner also pointed to population growth in the area outpacing capacity limits, an issue exacerbated by staffing shortages stemming from the pandemic.

"The beds are only one part of it. It doesn't do us a lot of good to have 100 new beds, because we'll need over 200, 300 nurses, hundreds of new respiratory therapists to care for patients in those beds, I think it's a global issue," said Joyner.

It's why doctors are encouraging people to take precautions, including getting vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19.

"If you are symptomatic stay home, just stay home. And if you are symptomatic and have to go out, at least mask, hand wash, good hand hygiene. It's muscular dystrophy patients like her, you have cancer patients, you have elderly who are all immunocompromised. And it seems like this flu has come back with a vengeance, flu and RSV. And the hospitals are full," added Megan Culp.

Culp's 14-month-old daughter Amelia spent 33 days hospitalized at Duke Health because of rhinovirus. Amelia has spinal muscular atrophy, leaving her at high risk for respiratory viruses.

"It was very, very hard. There was many times her oxygen, while on the ventilator, with high settings, her oxygen would be 26%, and she'd be blue. And I'd just have to walk out," Culp said.

Amelia spent 17 days on a ventilator before she was discharged earlier this week, as her mom is now urging the community to be aware of their symptoms.