STATE COLLEGE - Flu cases are mounting in Pennsylvania, and 22 deaths have been attributed to the illness, state health officials said.
The number of cases could continue to spike because the flu season typically doesn't peak for at least another couple weeks.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health designated flu as now "widespread" throughout the commonwealth. There have been more than 11,000 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in the state since the flu season began in mid-December, with nearly 4,300 of those reported last week alone.
A tent, for patients with flu symptoms, is set up just outside the emergency entrance at the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown on Thursday. The state Department of Health now has designated flu as “widespread” throughout the commonwealth. There have been more than 11,000 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in the state since the flu season began in mid-December.
The Health Department's flu-tracking website (www.flufreepa.com) said "widespread" is the highest category for tracking the virus. That means there have been outbreaks or increases in flu-like or "laboratory-confirmed influenza in at least half the regions of the state with recent laboratory evidence of influenza in the state."
Eighteen of the 22 flu-related deaths statewide were reported in the past week, the health department said in statistics updated Tuesday. The majority were reported among Pennsylvanians older than 65, but two involved "otherwise healthy young individuals" under 50, the state said.
An infant died last weekend from flu-related symptoms, said Matthew Burns, a spokesman for the Lehigh Valley Health Network. The state update said no pediatric flu-related death had been reported.
The state also reported 971 flu-related hospitalizations.
The Lehigh Valley medical system's Cedar Crest location recently set up a secondary emergency department in a "mobile surge tent" outside the hospital in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. The hospital directed patients experiencing flu-like symptoms to report to the main emergency room entrance for assessment before being escorted to a treatment area.
Penn State Hershey Medical Center also has a mobile tractor-trailer unit ready to set up outside its emergency room if needed as additional treatment space, said Dr. Glenn Geeting, an emergency department physician. He said the hospital was seeing a high volume of flu patients, as others are across the state, though this season's strain isn't as lethal as the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009.
Geeting advised that people with severe symptoms including dehydration, vomiting and shortness of breath should go to the emergency room.
"In general, if you find you have the flu, it's no fun. But if it's only a mild illness, there's really no need to go to the ER," Geeting said in a phone interview. "There's only a limited amount of (treatment) an ER can offer, and can potentially divert resources" from more serious cases.
For mild symptoms, "often the best treatment is time," Geeting said.
A flu shot is the best way to prevent influenza, the Lehigh Valley health system said in guidelines posted on its website.
Experts advise people to stay home if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms including fever, cough, fatigue, sore throat, muscle aches and headaches. Other recommendations from the Lehigh Valley Health Network include disinfecting common areas in the home or work area daily, and using hand sanitizer frequently.