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CLEVELAND — The flu season has peaked early hitting people hard across Northeast Ohio, and doctors say that’s highly unusual.

The influenza virus kicked into full gear in December, but usually doesn’t do so until a month or two later, said Lisa Aurilio, the vice president for patient services and chief nursing officer at Akron Children’s Hospital.

Hospitals in Cleveland and Akron are seeing an increased number of cases.  The emergency rooms have been very busy with people experiencing flu like symptoms.   

Dr. Charles Emerman, Chairman of Emergency Medicine at MetroHealth Medical Center said the hospital is near its capacity of 400 beds and people have to wait longer than typical to be admitted.  

“We’re pretty full.  We still can get patients placed in beds when we need to.  We got a couple, three patients who have been waiting for a couple of hours for a bed,” Dr. Emerman said.

The flu can be particularly dangerous for people who already have heart or lung problems or some other disease, like sickle cell anemia. 

Dr. Michael Anderson, Chief Medical Officer for University Hospitals said the in-patients wards and intensive care units are also very busy tending to the sickest of the flu patients. 

“We’re seeing patients that are very dehydrated, needing oxygen or quite frankly very, very sick from this flu.”  Dr. Anderson said most people can get through the flu just fine at home.   “But, we’re seeing a lot of sick patients that need hospitalization,” he added. 

In Akron, the situation is similar.

“We’ve really seen a much busier this year than we have seen in the last few years,” says Aurilio. “December was exceptionally busy for us. We saw almost 5,900 additional emergency room visits just in Akron.”

Aurilio said the hospital’s four Ohio campuses have seen 10,000 emergency visits this year – a first for the hospital.

Akron Children’s Hospital had to bring in additional staff to meet the high patient volumes. Akron General and Summa Health System have not faced any staffing problems.

“The nurses are flexing their staff amongst themselves, using their as-needed staff,” said Wanda Mullins, an infection control practitioner at Akron General Hospital. “They’re covering extra shifts. So far we’re lucky to be able to accommodate the demand.”

Both Aurilio and Mullins say it’s normal for a hospital to bring in nurses and doctors during the busy flu season.

As the hospitals fill up quick, they all have alternatives if extra rooms are needed.

“We have preparations that we can open an additional 15-bed in-patient unit and 4 additional ICU beds if the need calls for it,”Aurilio said. “Our ICU days are up about 14 percent over last year, but we are prepared that if we run out of room, we can open additional space.”

The space may not be needed at all. Akron Children’s Hospital saw a decrease in flu patients over the holidays. But, as more children have returned to school, they’re seeing more flu cases in the ER.

“We’re seeing the impact of the flu in all of our sectors,” Aurilio said. “Our school health nurses – and we’re in 14 school districts – are seeing about a 40 percent increase in the number of clinic visits of kids getting sick at school.”

“We feel we’re in a good place to accommodate,” Aurilio added. “Hopefully this early start means an early end to this season.”

Dr. Anderson at University Hospitals says the flu season usually peaks around February, and he expects it to get worse over the next few weeks.  He said it’s not too late to get a flu shot, but it will take about two weeks to take effect.

For more on the seasonal flu outbreak, click here