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Thu, April 25

Flu hitting local caregivers, too

Flu season has hit Yavapai Regional Medical Center's staff so hard the hospital is moving patients to Phoenix hospitals because YRMC does not have enough staff left to care for them safely, said Tim Barnett, YRMC chief executive officer.

Arizona Department of Health Services spokeswoman Janey Pearl said that hospitals transferring patients to other hospitals because of flu-induced staff shortages is not unusual.

"We've heard that that's been kind of a situation statewide," Pearl said.

Kevin Keighron, YRMC chief operating officer, said he was on duty at the hospital two weeks ago when the staff shortages were at their worst.

Not only was YRMC backed up, but so were many other Arizona hospitals. Keighron worried he might have to transfer patients out of state.

"We had six or seven patients waiting (in the emergency department) overnight (at the Prescott campus) because we didn't have beds," Keighron said. "And the hospitals we were trying to send patients to weren't accepting them."

Most of the employees calling in sick were nurses. Because the hospital employs one nurse for every five patients, when a nurse calls in sick it has an immediate ripple effect.

"It effectively reduces our capacity to take care of patients in the ED (Emergency Department) by 40 percent," Keighron said. That means a much longer wait for emergency department patients, especially those the hospital needed to admit, he added.

In a Feb. 20 memo to YRMC board members, Barnett wrote that YRMC had seen a significant increase in flu-like illnesses in emergency room patients.

"We have also seen an increase in staff illnesses which parallel the community," Barnett's memo continued. "We continue to try to care for our community, but have needed to transfer some (patients) due to lack of staff to safely care for them."

YRMC spokeswoman Robbie Nicol said the hospital could not give specifics on the number of patient transfers and the number of employees out sick with flu-like symptoms because the hospital does not track those statistics.

However, Keighron said an ambulance took at least one child to a Phoenix hospital after a nurse called in sick.

And when one on-call surgeon called in sick the hospital had to "scramble" to find another doctor to cover for him.

Other staff doctors have called in sick, but so far, YRMC has found doctors to cover for them.

During flu season or when any medical emergency strikes, the hospital uses a special computer system to find out which hospitals in Arizona are taking patients, Keighron explained.

Called EM Resource, the system keeps a log of hospitals and their status, which can range from 'open,' to 'caution,' to 'divert.' Divert status means hospitals are not accepting any patients and caution status means they are not accepting patients with specific problems.

Keighron said what kept YRMC from facing a more serious emergency during this year's severe flu season was the east campus in Prescott Valley, which opened in May of 2006. Having an additional campus means more beds and more doctors and nurses are available during medical emergencies.

Keighron said that this week the staff shortages have begun to decline.

Every year in Arizona, an average of 5 percent to 20 percent of the population gets the flu; more than 4,000 people end up hospitalized flu complications; and about 700 people die from the flu, according to AZDHS figures.

Flu season can last as late as May. The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated, according to state officials, and the best time to get vaccinated is in October or November.

As of Feb. 23, the last week for which the state has statistics, Yavapai County had 12 confirmed cases of the flu. All 15 Arizona counties are reporting confirmed flu cases with a total of 2,601 cases statewide, Pearl said.

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