The flu is starting to wallop Beaufort County, and many of its victims are seeking medical treatment.
But only the most vulnerable patients should seek that treatment in an emergency room, a local hospital official says.
The increase in flu cases at the start of the year has been significant, according to Dr. Steve Larsons, Beaufort Memorial Hospital's emergency room medical director. The department averages 122 patients a day, but emergency staff tended to 142 on Thursday and traffic has increased 15 to 20 percent early this year, with most of the patients displaying flu-like symptoms.
The increase is being managed by staff, and although he didn't have exact numbers on wait times or untreated patients, Larson said there have been a handful who left before being treated.
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As of Jan. 4, 22 confirmed cases of influenza, including one death, had been reported this year in all of Beaufort County, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. By Friday, the number of cases had ballooned to 87 at Beaufort Memorial alone, Larsons said. Ten of those patients were hospitalized. Attempts late Friday to reach officials at Hilton Head and Coastal Carolina hospitals were unsuccessful.
Cases of serious viral pneumonia are ticking upward at the Beaufort Memorial emergency room, as well, Larsons said.
When flu cases surge like this, the hospital often forgoes viral testing and employees make clinical diagnoses instead, Larsons said. Results from a rapid influenza test can be available within 15 minutes, whereas a viral test can take three to 10 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The traffic in local emergency rooms could be reduced if healthy adults with no underlying illnesses saw their regular doctor instead, Larsons said. He said people with the flu should try to avoid unnecessary contact with large groups of people where they can spread the virus.
However, those with shortness of breath, chest pain, or signs of dehydration, such as dizziness or vomiting, should seek immediate help, he said. That is particularly true for older adults or those with existing health concerns.
"You feel like you're being hit by a truck," he said. "It's really an uncomfortable illness and I think that's why people seek attention."
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.