Flu leads to record hospitalizations, vaccine shortages south of Boston

For one kindergarten class at Quincy’s Bernazzani Elementary School, school wasn’t as much fun last week. Most of the students were out sick, and the few who showed up couldn’t play with the Play-Doh and the toys that were being disinfected.

At South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, state public health officials allowed medical staff to open 10 newly constructed patient rooms on Jan. 3, weeks before schedule, to accommodate a sudden influx of flu patients.

In Easton, health officials are almost certain they will deplete the town’s remaining 70 doses of flu vaccine at a clinic scheduled for Thursday.

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An aggressive and deadly virus, compounded by an early start to the flu season, has led to a spike in hospitalizations in communities south of Boston and sent a bevy of alarmed vaccine holdouts flocking to their nearest clinic as some communities are running short of vaccine.

“Certainly this is the most active flu season that I can remember in about 10 years,” said Dr. Mark DeMatteo, chief of emergency medicine at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth. “I hope we’re seeing the worst of it now, but I can’t guarantee that. I think it’s likely to continue to get worse.”

Although recent state and federal data indicate the worst of the season might be over, some area health agents say they’re still seeing a large number of cases.

“In November, we had about six admissions for flu-like symptoms,” DeMatteo said. “In December we had almost 400. That’s a colossal increase.”

As of late last week, Jordan Hospital had already had 171 patients hospitalized with flu-like symptoms for the month of January, “so we’re certainly seeing an enormous amount of traffic,” DeMatteo said.

Flu season usually kicks off in late fall and peaks in February or March, area health officials said, but this season came early, and features a more virulent flu strand. Early last week, the state reported a total of 18 flu-related deaths so far this season. Since then, Boston reported two additional deaths, including a child under 6. Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston declared a public health emergency in the city on Jan 9.

Several hospitals, including Jordan and South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, have responded to the flu by scheduling extra shifts for staff and opening up rooms in other areas to relieve the emergency room overflow.

At South Shore Hospital, where a $43 million expansion was recently completed, administrators requested and received permission from the state Department of Public Health to expedite the opening of 10 of the new rooms to admit the rising number of flu patients, said spokeswoman Sarah Darcy. The hospital’s emergency room was so busy the last week of December, staff turned to affiliate Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to take some of the patients, she said.

“Beginning on Dec. 28, we had record numbers of patients here, and the flu was the direct cause of that,” Darcy said. “We’re 318 beds, and everything was full, and then some. . . . We don’t really know exactly why, but it did explode all at once.”

The number of confirmed flu patients admitted at South Shore Hospital went from one the first week of December to 43 in the last week of that month, said Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases. From Dec. 30 to Jan. 5, there were 29 confirmed flu cases out of 189 patients experiencing flu-like symptoms.

“That’s the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t mean there are only 29 flu cases,” he said. “These numbers are emergency room only, for patients already admitted, and don’t include outpatient patients that happened to be sent home. The volumes have been unprecedented.”

As word of rising flu-related hospitalizations spread, cities and towns organized last-minute vaccination clinics for residents, including those in Quincy, where a kindergarten classroom at Bernazzani was so hard hit, school officials closed it down to disinfect it.

Out of 19 kindergartners in that class, 12 showed up last Thursday, and eight last Friday, said Jane Kisielius, the district’s coordinator of health services. She could not confirm whether all the absences were due to the flu. By Monday, only two students were out.

An e-mail sent by a parent last Thursday to the other parents stated that the state Public Health Department recommended the classroom be closed and disinfected, said Kate Campbell, whose 5-year-old daughter, Maisie Lee, was among the few students in that classroom who wasn’t sick. The family got flu shots in September. The eight students who showed up last Friday, including Maisie, were moved to another classroom.

In the meantime, Quincy health officials issued an alert last week that flu clinics would be open to residents during evening hours, but by Monday they were discontinued because of a flu vaccine shortage.

In Marion, about 75 people showed up at a vaccine clinic Monday, including several first-timers, said Kathy Downey, public health nurse. Since October, Downey has held weekly flu clinics that attracted an average of four people.

“So this was a bit of an increase,” she said, adding that news reports about the flu, including the death of the Boston child, may have changed the minds of people who planned to forgo inoculation.

“That was very scary to parents,” Downey said.

With flu vaccine supply running low in several communities, Downey said she ordered an additional 100 doses late last week. Another clinic is scheduled for Friday in neighboring Rochester Town Hall Annex for residents of Marion and Rochester. Downey said she plans to hold another clinic Jan. 28, “if I have vaccine left.”

Easton health agent Mark Taylor said that since September, the town has received 615 doses of the vaccine, and currently has 70 left. He expects most, if not all, will be gone after a scheduled flu clinic starting at 11 a.m. Thursday in Town Hall.

The clinic is for Easton residents by appointment, said Taylor, adding that among those planning to come is a woman who is about to start a new job, but will have no health insurance for the first 90 days. Hard hit by the recession, the woman and her husband lost their home and now live in an apartment with their son.

“She called us up and we said, ‘Come anyway.’ She’s been unemployed for a while,” Taylor said. “She wanted to protect herself and her family [from the flu]. She can’t afford to get sick. She was so thankful for’’ the vaccine.

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