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Flu Outbreak Doesn’t Skip Twin States

17 Deaths in N.H., Vt., Called ‘Serious’ For This Time of Yea r

An influenza outbreak that has struck most of the nation has killed 17 people in the Twin States, including two nursing home residents in New London, and put hospitals throughout the Upper Valley on watch.

So far, 14 people have died in New Hampshire and there have been 40 institutional outbreaks, mostly at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Out of 408 cases tested at the N.H. Public Health Laboratories, 238 have come back positive for influenza.

Vermont has seen flu cases pick up as well, though not to the level in New Hampshire. So far, three people have died and 16 out of 41 cases tested for the flu at the state’s Department of Health Laboratory have come back positive.

Those aren’t alarming figures, but it is “cause for serious concern” because of the number of deaths is unusually high for this time in the season, said Dr. Jose Montero, New Hampshire’s public health director. In New England, 45 percent of cases tested were positive for the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading Boston to declare a public health emergency.

Health officials are urging all people over the age of six months to get vaccinated, particularly seniors, who are at risk for health complications from the flu. Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont has scheduled a special flu vaccination clinic tomorrow from noon to 2 p.m. for adults over the age of 18.

“My guess is there are still a lot of people out there that have not been vaccinated,” said Jodie Dionne-Odom, an infectious disease doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and a deputy state epidemiologist in New Hampshire. “Now is a good time to remind them to do that.”

The VA Medical Center in White River Junction also yesterday announced a series of flu shot clinics at its main campus and at seven outpatient clinics around the Twin States, along with some community locations. In the Upper Valley, eligible veterans needing a flu shot can go to the White Mountain and Green Mountain primary care clinics in White River Junction without an appointment anytime between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday for a flu vaccine.

A flu outbreak at the The Clough Center, a 58-bed nursing home at New London Hospital, claimed the lives of two patients this week, said Steven Powell, chief medical officer at the hospital.

The outbreak spread to the inpatient unit of the hospital and caused two more people to get sick, he said. Those patients seem to be recovering well and the outbreak has been contained, he said.

“Most people are not seriously ill,” Powell said.

Other hospitals in the Upper Valley said they have seen a number of people coming in with respiratory illnesses and are making preparations now in case there is a surge in numbers.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock has dusted off its emergency plan as a precaution, said Dionne-Odom, and the hospital is encouraging visitors to stay home if they have a cough.

The volume of cases so far is higher than last year, which was a mild flu season, but has not caused hospitals to go into emergency mode just yet.

“We’re not closing the doors, we’re not doing anything drastic,” she said. “We’re business as usual, but with certain precautions in place to keep the patients and the health care staff and the public protected.”

Dartmouth-Hitchcock and New London both have mandatory flu vaccination policies for their workers, requiring it as a condition of employment. But the vaccine is typically only 70 to 80 percent effective, Dionne-Odom said. People still need to take steps to protect themselves.

Joe Woodin, administrator at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, discovered this fact the hard way. Despite being immunized in late November, he came down with the flu over the Christmas holiday.

“I did lose the enjoyment of a week’s vacation because I was in bed,” he said.

Gifford has seen a few cases, but not to the levels that are being reported elsewhere around the country, said Thom Goodwin, manager of quality and infection prevention at Gifford.

Like many hospitals this year, Gifford made a strong push to boost immunization rates among its employees, with more than 90 percent of its workers getting flu shots.

Nevertheless, the hospital is keeping an eye on the outbreak and warning visitors to take precautions if they feel sick.

“If people are coming to the facility with respiratory symptoms, they need to be putting on a mask as soon as they come through the door, Goodwin said.

Alice Peck Day Hospital in Lebanon has not had any patients admitted for influenza so far this season, said Wendy James, an infection preventionist at APD. Valley Regional just began seeing cases of the flu this week, said Rebecca Stockwell, the hospital’s infection prevention control clinical coordinator. Patients must wear masks in the Valley Regional waiting room, Stockwell said, and staff are being encouraged to as well.

“I’ve just reiterated to the ER that they need to have a low threshold for wearing a mask,” she said.

Hospitals are also encouraging people to come in and get a flu shot. Valley Regional is offering free flu shots to people without insurance at tomorrow’s clinic, and people with health insurance should bring their card. The hospital will have about 100 doses of the vaccine available.

There is still plenty of vaccine available throughout the Upper Valley, hospital officials said.

“As long as we have supplies, we’re taking walk-ins,” said Amber Cutler, public relations director at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor. “We don’t want people out there getting the flu.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.