Hospitals struggle with flu surge

A hospital struggling with an upsurge of influenza and similar illnesses is appealing to patients to see their GP early rather than waiting and going to the emergency department.

Middlemore Hospital in south Auckland has been particularly hard hit by the wintertime flood of patients and is urging those eligible for free flu vaccination to get it if they haven't already. The annual programme of state-paid vaccination for the elderly, pregnant women and people with certain chronic diseases ends on Sunday.

"ED presentations have been up 6 per cent in the last month," said the clinical head of the hospital's emergency department, Dr Vanessa Thornton. "A lot of that has been the flu and people not going to their doctor first off." "People should get early review from their own doctor." On Monday, the Middlemore ED managed 337 patients, 300 on Sunday and 297 on Saturday.

Over the last week the average has been 310 a day. During winter 300 a day has become the new normal.

"I think across the [Auckland] region it's been very high," Dr Thornton said of the impact of flu on hospital attendances.

Her hospital's medical and surgical wards were 7 per cent over capacity yesterday, meaning that some medical patients had to be nursed in surgical wards and some were kept in areas normally used for other purposes. A 15-bed observation unit in the ED, which had not been in use as its functions had been moved to another area, has been re-opened as an additional holding area for patients waiting for a bed on a ward.

The Counties Manukau District Health Board has not cancelled any elective surgery as a result of the upsurge of patients because most of its electives are done at its Manukau Surgical Centre rather than Middlemore.

The number of influenza-like cases seen each week at general practices in the Counties Manukau and central Auckland health districts has jumped this month, peaking at about 120 cases for every 100,000 enrolled patients. This is considered high and is more than twice the average rate for the rest of the country.

A spokeswoman for Waitemata DHB, which operates the North Shore and Waitakere hospitals, said they had been running at near or above maximum capacity this week, peaking at 2 per cent over.

The DHB had experienced an upsurge in flu cases since late July, but the high capacity this week was from the full range of winter illnesses and not just influenza.

Patient numbers at the DHB's two emergency departments in the past fortnight were up on the same time last year.

"The public's first port of call should always be their family practitioner unless there is an emergency or life-threatening situation," the spokeswoman said.

Auckland DHB said, "We're busy, like everyone else, because it's winter. We are not at capacity, but close to it. We have had to put in place escalation plans." The Waikato DHB said high numbers of children had been presenting at the Thames and Waikato hospitals since last week, largely with respiratory illnesses.

"We are considering, on Friday, whether we start cancelling elective surgery on children for the first half of next week."

- By Martin Johnston of the New Zealand Herald

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