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Published: 10/18/2009

Probable flu patients flocking to physicians; Toledo area clinics expect numbers to climb

BLADE STAFF

Dr. John McBride doesn't need a lab test to tell him a large number of patients filling the waiting room at Franklin Park Pediatrics have swine flu.

He knows they do.

"This really is like a bad, bad cold with fever and achiness, and the vast majority of people just need Motrin and fluids and rest," Dr. McBride said. "The main reason to go to the doctor would be if you are having difficulty breathing - not coughing - but actual difficulty breathing."

Despite that advice, area doctor's offices and hospital emergency rooms have experienced heavy patient loads over the last two weeks as growing numbers of people with flu symptoms show up.

"We're probably as busy as we usually are in January or February," said Dr. Beverly Scholler of South Toledo Pediatric Associates, where patients who have a cough or fever are asked to wear face masks.

Physicians say they expect the numbers to keep rising.

"It seems to be very contagious, so it's just the tip of the iceberg, I think," Dr. Scholler said, adding, "There's no reason to panic. It seems to be mild, and most children seem to recover fairly quickly."

Dr. Michael Mattin, chairman of the emergency department at Toledo Hospital, said the ER has experienced an increase of 10 to 20 patients a day who report flu symptoms and are concerned they have swine flu.

"I think we're ready for it to be a very busy season," he said. "I'd like to say we're prepared for it, but hopefully it won't be too long of a process."

Other area hospitals report an increase in patients with flu symptoms consistent with numbers when the seasonal flu hits every winter.

"Most are being treated and released and going home," said Doreen Cutway, spokesman for St. Luke's Hospital. "We're seeing numbers that would indicate our flu season is starting, but just earlier than usual."

Most patients, who do not have underlying health conditions such as asthma, are being sent home with instructions to get plenty of rest, drink fluids, and take Motrin or Tylenol as needed for fever and body aches.

Dr. McBride said that for children with other medical conditions, he has been prescribing Tamiflu, which slows the virus' ability to reproduce but doesn't cure the illness.

"There is a lot of panic out there that there just didn't need to be," he said. "If a child feels achy and has a fever and they get Motrin and then they're up and perky and playing, that's a good sign they don't need to see the doctor."

As swine flu spreads, local schools are experiencing higher absentee rates, although officials say student absences have not reached alarming rates.

Kathryn Hott, superintendent of the Springfield Local system, said the middle school, which has about 900 students, had 130 out sick one day, but absences have been dropping.

"We have the flu. We have colds and that type of thing," she said, adding that the district's only student with a confirmed case of H1N1 has recovered and returned to school.

Because children over 6 months old are especially vulnerable to the virus, the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department is mobilizing to vaccinate as many of the county's 88,000 school-age children as possible.

The health department plans to have immunization clinics at every school - public and private - as the vaccine becomes available over the next two months, said Larry Vasko, deputy health commissioner.

Specialized clinics - for heath-care providers, pregnant women, and other priority groups - began last week.

"I've given marching orders to our health department staff," he said. "I said, 'Every day in November I want two immunization teams of two immunizers available in the morning and in the afternoon, even on Thanksgiving.'

"If we have vaccine, we want to move every day in November."

The first school district-

wide clinic is scheduled for Oct. 26 and 27 and Nov. 4 in Oregon City Schools, although the health department is attempting to arrange a smaller-scale trial run at a Toledo charter school later this week.

Although some school administrators initially expressed concern about using school hours for flu shots, Mr. Vasko said no school has opted out of the process.

The shots, which are free, are optional for students, and parents must sign consent forms for their children to be immunized.

Mr. Vasko said some schools wanted to allow parents to be with their children when they get the shot, and that's OK with health officials, although it could be a hindrance if too many parents come to school for the flu clinic.

"It's going to be a traffic nightmare more than anything," he said. "At an elementary we can go through 400 or 500 kids in a couple hours, but by the time you park cars and get inside, that will slow things down. If parents are comfortable with their child getting a shot without being there firsthand, that's my personal preference."

Oregon Superintendent Micahel Zalar said volunteers will match students' photo IDs and ID numbers with their permission forms before they are immunized. The school also will provide an after-care area for any student who has a reaction or discomfort after receiving the shot.

"We're going to coordinate a rotation of classrooms and grade levels to try to make it as least disruptive to our school days as possible," Mr. Zalar said.

- Jennifer Feehan



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