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Jackson County public health officials Friday asked people with mild influenza symptoms to stay away from hospital emergency departments to give doctors and nurses time to treat people with more serious ailments.
Patient visits at emergency departments at Medford's two hospitals have risen 30 to 40 percent over average figures for early October, causing longer-than-usual waiting times for people with less-serious problems.
"We are struggling to be able to meet the demand," said Dr. Ken Buccino, medical director for the emergency department at Rogue Valley Medical Center. He said RVMC usually sees about 90 people a day in the emergency department, but the average so far for October has been 126.
"If you come, we will see you," Buccino said, "but when we are seeing this many patients there will be some delays."
In a brief press conference, Buccino and Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's medical officer, asked that only people with serious influenza symptoms seek care at emergency rooms. Such symptoms could include severe chest pain, difficulty breathing, and inability to stand up without feeling dizzy.
Shames noted that a new feature on the federal government's influenza Web site (www.flu.gov/evaluation) can help people determine whether they need medical attention.
The site features a series of simple yes/no questions and provides suggestions about whether to see a doctor or visit a hospital.
Physicians presume many of the people who are falling ill have the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, but the actual number of people infected with H1N1 is impossible to know because only people who are admitted to the hospital are actually tested for the virus.
As the virus continued to spread across Southern Oregon and the nation, even Medford's Rogue Rotary Club took note. Greeters at Friday's meeting abandoned the traditional welcoming handshake in favor of pressing their hands together and bowing gently.
The club announced the new greeting procedure Oct. 2. Bob Wise and Lisa James were at the door, with a bottle of hand sanitizer nearby for those who forgot.
"Everybody is smiling and going along with it," Wise said. "Because of the sickness going around, we want to be safe."
Some people chose to wave, salute or signal the "live long and prosper" greeting of Mr. Spock from "Star Trek." A few gave James a peck on the cheek.
"It's fun because it disrupts the (handshake) habit," James said.
The virus' rapid spread this week prompted Providence Health and Services to restrict patient visitation at its eight Oregon hospitals, including Providence Medford Medical Center.
Visitors under age 18, including family members, are not allowed to visit Providence birth centers, which includes maternity units, and labor and delivery areas. Only two persons will be allowed to attend any birth.
Providence also barred visitors under age 18 in all other areas of the hospital, with the exception of immediate family members. No more than two people are allowed to visit at any time, and people who have flu symptoms should not visit the hospital at all.
The restrictions do not apply to patients receiving end-of-life care.
RVMC announced similar measures Thursday.
Physicians have observed that disproportionate numbers of young people have been infected with the H1N1 virus, and that trend has been noted locally, too.
"The vast majority of the patients we're seeing are school-age children, from first grade to high school," said Dr. Cory Bergey, medical director for the emergency department at Providence Medford.
Bergey said Providence usually sees around 85 people a day at the ED, but those numbers have risen to around 110 for the past few weeks.
Bergey said many of the people seeking treatment for influenza symptoms are not very sick, but doctors and nurses still spend lots of time with them explaining how to avoid spreading the virus to family members and when they can go back to work or school.
"All in all, it's labor intensive," she said.
Bergey said the best approach for most people with influenza symptoms is to stay home and ride it out. Over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen can reduce fever, and drinking plenty of water will keep the body's immune system working. Antiviral medicines such as Tamiflu are most effective only if they're administered within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Drugs will not eliminate the misery, only reduce it, she said. They're expensive, too, she observed. A course of Tamiflu runs $80 to $90.
"There's no real magic bullet," she said.
Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.