Officials: Hawaii flu outbreak complicated by virus fears

  • FILE - This Jan. 23, 2020 file photo shows a patient receiving a flu vaccination in Mesquite, Texas. On Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the vaccine has been more than 50% effective in preventing flu illness severe enough to send a child to the doctor's office. Health experts consider that pretty good. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

HONOLULU — Hawaii is bracing for 50,000 to 70,000 cases of flu this year. But a surge in influenza has been complicated by fears of the new virus that started in China.

Many patients visiting Hawaii emergency rooms for flu cases are worried about contracting the illness known as COVID-19, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Sunday.

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The flu is running rampant at Hawaii health care facilities, officials said. A handful of hospitals diverted ambulances on at least one day last week because they were overwhelmed beyond capacity.

“There is an obvious psychological component to the flu this year complicated by the coronavirus. None of our Hawaii residents have had coronavirus, but it’s still a very real thing on people’s minds,” said Democratic Lt. Gov. Josh Green, an emergency room doctor.

The U.S. has already had 22 million influenza cases in the four months since flu season began. About three dozen Americans have been reported to have the virus that emerged late last year in central China.

One in 1,000 people typically die of the flu, officials said.

“That’s not an insignificant number at all. That’s thousands of people that have died from the flu. That’s 50 to 70 people who could die from complications of flu in Hawaii each year alone,” Green said.

Green added: “Of course coronavirus is killing 25 people out of 1,000. It’s much more lethal, but you still have to be super mindful of the flu because so many people get it.”

Dr. Julius Pham, interim chief quality officer at The Queen’s Health Systems, said the emergency room at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu treated about 44 cases of flu per week in the last month, up from an average 36 at the same time last year.

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Queen’s has experienced a nearly 40% increase in the number of hospitalized patients with influenza. About 120 patients have been hospitalized since the season began, up from 88 patients during the same period last year, Pham said.

“They have much more to be concerned about influenza than coronavirus,” Pham said. “The good news is everything they would do to protect themselves from coronavirus would help with flu, too.”

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