Louisiana is suffering its worst flu season in decades and perhaps ever with hundreds of deaths likely, the state's immunization director said.
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"I've been doing this job for 20 years and I've never seen the flu season here so aggressive so early," Dr. Frank Welch of the Louisiana Department of Health said in an interview with USA Today Network.
Welch said he fears 600 to 700 people will likely die in Louisiana from flu-related deaths this year.
"That's a hard thing to determine because the flu is very opportunistic," he said. "A patient might not die from the flu itself, but from other illnesses or conditions exacerbated by the flu."
Welch said the number of Louisianans seeking treatment for flu-like symptoms is about 10 percent of the population, almost double the percentage during last year's peak season, which is February.
"It's unprecedented," he said. "This is a freight train."
And there's no hiding from it. Every region of the state is affected.
"It's terrible everywhere," he said. "It's widespread."
Emergency rooms in some cities have been in limited diversion at some time during the past three weeks, which means ambulances are asked to take patients to other facilities if possible.
"It started right after Christmas with unprecedented arrivals into our emergency departments," said Terry J. Broussard, chief nursing officer for Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette.
Broussard is also a member of the Louisiana Emergency response Network, which tracks the percentage of hospital beds in use.
"We have some of the highest (hospital bed) census (in Acadiana) in years - as high as 85 percent," he said. "It's driven up wait times and admissions. On Wednesday four of the major emergency rooms were on limited diversion because of the saturation of patients."
"Capacity is always an issue when there is a spike in admissions like we've seen," said Kristin Wolkart, president and chief executive officer of St. Francis Medical Center in Monroe. "And our urgent care centers are seeing about twice the volume of patients as normal."
Dr. Raymond Coghlan is the northwestern Louisiana infection disease consultant for Willis-Knighton Health System, the largest provider in the region.
"Compared to last year we're already at a level where it peaked in February and March," said Coghlan, who said there have been 532 positive tests from Willis-Knighton patients in the past week.
"It's very significant; certainly epidemic," he said. "And it's hard to believe that we'll see a significant drop-off at this time of year this early in the season."
Monica Sieja, the infection prevention nurse at Rapides Regional Medical Center in Alexandria, said activity there "has skyrocketed during the last two weeks."
"We've seen dramatic increases in our emergency department and hospital admissions," she said. "It's the worst I've seen in my 20 years as a nurse."
Welch said there are three strains of flu infecting Louisianans this season, including two type A strains (H3N2 and H1N1) and a B virus.
He said the A strains, especially the H3N2, are generally more aggressive and more severe. "The H3N2 is the freight train I was telling you about," he said.
And that's the strain caught by John Wyatt of Luna, who spent a week in the hospital after his case worsened with dehydration.
"I went down like a rocket ship," he said. "It's so bad you don't want to do anything. It's dangerous."
Wyatt said he relapsed after returning to work as soon as his fever broke the first time, which is what sent him to the hospital. "That was a big mistake," he said.
All of the health care providers emphasized being vigilant with the primary prevention methods.
Among those methods: washing hands frequently; wearing masks if you can't avoid people with the flu; avoid shaking hands; and absolutely taking the flu vaccine, even if its less effective than in the past.
Welch said the flu vaccine seems to be 30 to 35 percent effective and covers all three strains. "That's much better than the 10 percent effectiveness we first anticipated as it came out of Australia," he said.
"Some protection is better than no protection," Broussard said.
It's most important for the very young and very old and those suffering with other chronic illnesses to get the flu shot.
Welch said even those who have already suffered from the flu should get the vaccine because it could protect them from a second strain. He also said even if the vaccine doesn't prevent the flu it can make symptoms be less severe.
Coghlan said he "can't emphasize enough the importance of frequent hand washing. You'd be surprised how many people don't wash their hands," he said.
Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1