The virus that caused the deadly “swine flu” pandemic of 2009 is walloping Kansas City and the rest of the nation once again this season, putting countless patients in intensive care and contributing to dozens of deaths from coast to coast.
Confirmed flu cases in Kansas City spiked in mid-December and have continued to surge into the new year. As of Dec. 29, there were 1,466 cases reported to the Kansas City Health Department, a number that understates the true magnitude of the flu’s spread because it includes only people who’ve been tested.
“We do know there is a significant number of people out there, people being hospitalized, who are very sick,” said Jeff Hershberger, a health department spokesman.
News media this week have reported at least 12 flu-related deaths so far this season in California, 19 in the Dallas area, nine in the Nashville, Tenn., area, and six in Illinois.
The Kansas City Star has learned of two recent flu-related deaths in this region. One was a patient at St. Luke’s Hospital, a man whose age was not available; the other was a man in his 30s who died while being transported to St. Luke’s.
Many of the deaths and most severe cases this season have been among teens and young and middle-aged adults, rather than the very young and old, the age groups usually most vulnerable to the flu. That’s because the prevalent flu strain so far has been H1N1, which has proved to be dangerous to “young invincibles.”
H1N1 is the swine flu — so named because it first appeared in pigs — that was responsible for an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 deaths worldwide in 2009. About 80 percent of those who died were younger than 65. During a typical flu season, about 80 to 90 percent of deaths are among people 65 and older.
People infected with variant viruses like H1N1 generally have symptoms similar to those of regular human flu, including fever, lethargy, lack of appetite and coughing, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also may include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
The CDC first alerted doctors in a bulletin on Christmas Eve that the H1N1 virus was causing severe illnesses and deaths among the young and middle-aged.
More than 90 percent of the flu cases treated by Children’s Mercy Hospital this season have been the H1N1 virus, said Christopher Harrison, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the hospital. Last year, the strain was responsible for just a third of the cases.
“Influenza is the dominant thing in our emergency room right now,” Harrison said. “Physicians around the community are taking record numbers of (flu-related) phone calls. The phone never stops ringing.”
Many of the flu patients admitted to Children’s Mercy have been teenagers, Harrison said. Several patients have been so ill, they’ve been given experimental flu drugs, he said.
At St. Luke’s Hospital, the emergency room has been seeing two or three critically ill patients every day who need to be admitted for treatment, said Marc Larsen, medical director of the hospital’s emergency department. It’s the most he’s seen since 2009.
“It’s kind of a younger, healthier population that you don’t expect to be having such problems,” Larsen said.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, St. Luke’s had 22 patients with confirmed flu cases, about half of them in intensive care.
Some patients are so ill with flu-related pneumonia they’ve been placed on ECMO machines — extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — that serve as artificial lungs. St. Luke’s is a regional ECMO referral center and has received flu patients from as far as Joplin and St. Joseph.
To protect patients from flu spread by visitors and newly admitted patients, St. Luke’s is making sure its staff has received flu shots, and it’s stationing hand sanitizer and masks at various locations in the hospital.
“We don’t want to be a petri dish for patients and visitors,” Larsen said.
Even as the flu rages, there’s still time to get a flu shot, said Harrison, the Children’s Mercy infectious disease expert. The vaccine protects against the H1N1 virus and other flu strains as well.
That added protection could prove handy a month or two from now, Harrison said. As H1N1 wanes, another strain could dominate. Suffering through an H1N1 infection won’t make you immune to these other viruses.
“Until April, we always hold our breath waiting to see if one of these background strains kick in,” Harrison said.