As flu season descends on North America, hospitalists from Boston to the San Francisco Bay are concerned about what might happen when normal seasonal influenza hospital admissions are added to new cases of the novel influenza A (H1N1) virus.
Perhaps the most basic, still-unanswered question is how the addition of novel H1N1 virus affects the severity of the upcoming flu season. From April 15 to July 24 of this year, states reported 43,771 confirmed and probable cases of novel H1N1 infection. Of the cases reported, 5,011 people were hospitalized and 302 died. After July 24, the CDC stopped counting novel H1N1 as separate flu cases.
“We are expecting increased illness during the regular flu season, because we think both the novel H1N1 and seasonal flu strains will cause illness in the population,” says Artealia Gilliard, a spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. “The biggest problem we are having is that there is no set number we can give for planning purposes. We can’t say go out and prepare for X percent more illness, because there is no scientifically sound way to arrive at a number.”
Another concern is that little guidance is available on how severe the novel virus will be. Gilliard notes that the World Health Organization (WHO) gave novel H1N1 the pandemic designation because of its ease of transmission, not the severity of the disease. Although the CDC expects more illness, it is not yet clear how many people will be made sick enough to be cared for by a hospitalist.
“The epidemiology of this illness and prevention issues related to this newly emerging virus are still being studied, making it very difficult to anticipate the staffing needs for the upcoming flu season,” says Irina Schiopescu, MD, a hospitalist and infectious-disease specialist at Roane Medical Center in Harriman, Tenn. “Hospitalists will be among the many front-line healthcare workers who provide direct, bedside clinical care to patients with suspected or confirmed H1N1 influenza.”
Most of the nation’s hospitals spent the summer preparing for another pandemic. Hospitalists have assessed their needs, too, and HM programs are focusing on a diverse set of concerns: prevention education for hospital-based employees, patient management updates, and expected personnel shortages.