This season's flu outbreak has swamped Connecticut emergency rooms and walk-in clinics and forced some hospitals to add extra beds and temporary staff to keep up with the onslaught.
"I haven't seen a flu outbreak this bad in the seven years I've been at St. Francis," Rolf Knoll, chief medical officer at St. Francis Hospital & Medical Center, said Friday.
As the outbreak nears its peak, Connecticut has 1,680 confirmed cases and three deaths as of Jan. 5. The worst hit areas are New Haven and Fairfield counties, with 453 and 451 cases, respectively. This year's outbreak arrived about a month earlier and with more severity than the last two years, forcing many hospitals to scramble.
Hartford Hospital opened three extra units, and St. Francis converted some single rooms into doubles and opened an area that had been closed for renovation.
Some, such as St. Francis, have also hired extra staff and given nurses incentives to work overtime and weekends and extra shifts.
"This can only go on for so long before the hospital staff just can't take it," said Knoll, noting the strain of caring for so many critically ill patients in the ER, intensive care unit and on floors.
Many hospitals, including Greenwich Hospital, have encouraged visitors not to visit if they have any flu-like symptoms.
Deputy state Epidemiologist Lynn Sosa said it is unclear why the flu arrived earlier this season, but it's likely due to the three strains this year, including the particularly strong H3N2 strain.
In Boston, where Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared a public health emergency on Wednesday, the increase was dramatic, rising from 70 confirmed cases last season to 700 this winter.
On the bright side, the Centers for Disease Control announced Friday that the vaccines for the flu this year are very effective for dealing with this season's strains.
It is not too late to get the vaccine, and it is one of the best ways to prevent the flu, state health officials said. Patients can get the vaccine from their local health care provider or health center or by calling the state Department of Public Health at (860) 509-7929 for information.
It usually takes about two weeks after a flu vaccine for it become effective. It is not foolproof, though. About 35 percent of the population can still get the flu even after getting the vaccine, Knoll said.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the flu. The three deaths in Connecticut all involved patients over age 65 who had other medical conditions as well, Sosa said.
The main symptoms of the flu are a fever and a cough with or without a sore throat. Other symptoms can include fatigue, muscle aches, pain, and, sometimes, nausea.
"They just feel really, really bad. They feel like a truck just hit them," Sosa said.
The best prevention is to get the vaccine, practice good hand hygiene and cough into your arm or a tissue rather than your hand. And if you do get the flu, health officials urge you to stay home from work, school and other public places.