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Iowa's Flu Season Under Way, Vaccines Available

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Like the rest of the nation, Iowa is battling a high influx of influenza cases, with the peak not expected for several more weeks.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, the number of hospitalizations and percent of patients going to clinics for flu-like symptoms is already three times higher than in typical years, when the season peaks in February.

One notable aberration was in 2009, when the H1N1 virus was already widespread -- the highest level of flu activity -- by October of that year.

Eastern Iowa, so far, is not on pace with the Des Moines area, where hospitals urged patients with non-life-threatening illnesses to seek treatment at clinics rather than emergency rooms, because of heavy patient volumes. Those Des Moines-area hospitals also are restricting visitors.

No hospital in the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids Corridor has noted any restrictions in emergency rooms or patient visitors, but flu cases are on the rise. "We're really at the beginning of the epidemic in Iowa," said Dr. Loreen Herwaldt, epidemiologist at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. "It's clearly early and more people than usual are getting sick. It's a fairly active flu season."

The hospital's Emergency Department reported an increase of five to ten percent of patients with flu-like symptoms seeking care as compared both to last year and over the past several weeks.

Herwaldt said unless symptoms are severe and escalate rapidly, patients should see their primary care physician rather than an emergency room, if possible.

People in high-risk groups, though, such as pregnant women, children under age 2, the elderly and those with heart or lung disease and other underlying conditions should seek treatment as soon as possible, she said.

Antiviral medications taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms can lessen the flu's severity and duration.

Herwaldt added that it's still not too late to get a flu shot, available at the hospital and its clinics in Coralville, Iowa City, Muscatine, North Liberty, Riverside and Sigourney. The Visiting Nurse Association is also holding public flu shot clinics.

Shots do not contain the live virus. "You cannot get the flu from the shot," Herwaldt said, but added that people can still get the flu after getting a shot, though symptoms are generally less severe.

At St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids, doctors have started scaling back flu testing, which typically happens during peak flu season.

Doctors are operating under the assumption that if someone has flu-like symptoms, they have the flu, and are treated accordingly, spokeswoman Sarah Corizzo said.

Since Jan. 6, St. Luke's lab has completed 136 flu tests; 12 of which were positive for Influenza A and one positive for influenza B.

Two patients are hospitalized with influenza at St. Luke's.

The emergency room at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids has seen 155 patients with flu-like symptoms since Jan. 4, an average of 22 patients per day and about 17 percent of total ER patient volume.

During the peak of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, about 40 percent of Mercy's total patient volume was H1N1-related.

Mercy's peak day so far this season was Thursday, Jan. 9, when 31 patients were seen, or 22 percent of total ER volume.

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