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Hospitals guard against flu threat

Medical providers are asking young people to keep their distance from local hospitals, as a powerful strain of H1N1 influenza is sweeping across the state.

Unlike more common flu strains, H1N1 targets a young, healthy demographic that is less likely to have been immunized.

"It's a different flu variation than we normally see," said Jason Kuhl, a family physician and quality medical director at Providence Medford Medical Center.

"This strain affects younger and healthier individuals," said Kuhl.

As a precaution, Providence isn't allowing any visitors under 18 to enter the hospital, unless they are an immediate family member of a patient.

The restriction is in place because school-age children have higher rates of exposure to the flu, according to a Wednesday morning press release from Providence.

Each patient — with the exception of end-of-life-care patients — is limited to two visitors at the hospital at one time. Patients with a fever coupled with a cough or sore throat will be asked to wear a protective mask.

In the hospital's family birth center and intensive care units, no visitors under 18 will be allowed, with the exception of significant others of a patient or parents of a neonatal intensive care infant.

Only two designated support persons can attend a birth, and healthy babies will be roomed with their mothers to limit exposure to potential viruses.

"We haven't done this since 2009, but this flu is tending to hit a younger population," said Hillary Brown, public affairs coordinator for Providence.

The restrictions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, Brown said.

Brown said 18 cases of flu have been confirmed in the last week — 15 adults and three children. This adds to 13 that were confirmed in the second half of December. The hospital is administering between seven and eight flu tests per day.

The most recent numbers from Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center show that 59 people tested positive there for the flu virus in December.

The flu season restrictions are not unique to Providence, yet Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center has chosen not to restrict young visitors in the same way, according to spokesman Grant Walker.

Asante hospitals in Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass won't allow children under 14 to visit patients in isolation or who are at high risk for infection, but no other restrictions are in place, Walker said.

Walker said the hospital's infection control department is keeping track of flu season and doesn't believe there is a larger than usual number of cases yet this season.

"It's not a pandemic yet," Walker said.

The hospital does ask that people with respiratory symptoms or those feeling sick to not come to the hospital as visitors, and if they do, staff may ask them to wear a mask.

The flu is hitting all of Oregon hard, with more than four times the seasonally adjusted number of outpatients for flu-like symptoms reported in the last week of December, according to Flu Bites, Oregon's weekly influenza surveillance report.

That week the influenza activity level rose from minimal to moderate and was geographically widespread for the first time this flu season. The surveillance report receives flu data from 22 unidentified healthcare providers across Oregon, and reported 47 positive flu tests and 81 influenza-related hospitalizations that week. All 47 cases were of the H1N1 variety.

Flu Bites data for early January was not yet available Wednesday.

Kuhl said it isn't too late to get immunized against the flu. Children can see their doctor or pediatrician and adults can see a doctor or get the vaccine at a pharmacy.

To prevent contracting or spreading the flu, people should keep up good hand hygiene, cover their mouth when coughing and wash hands after coughing, Kuhl said.

Kuhl said these steps are important because people can have the flu for 24 hours before they start showing any symptoms.

The flu can spread quickly among children, he said.

"Young kids don't always practice the best hygiene or cover their mouths when they cough," said Kuhl.

Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at teresa.ristow@gmail.com.