An outbreak — featuring three virulent strains of influenza — that has plagued northern Alabama this winter is apparently moving swiftly into the state’s coastal area, including Atmore and Escambia County.
Although public health officials have not formally announced a direct connection, an Atmore woman who died this week is believed to have succumbed from the effects of the flu or a flu-like illness.
Diane Rabb, 55, who worked at Atmore’s Walmart, died suddenly after having apparently ridden the illness out. Some of her co-workers are sure that her passing was a result of her bout with influenza.
“She had been out of work with the flu, and she came back to work last week,” said an employee of the local retail outlet. “She thought she was over it and came back to work, but she started getting sick during her shift, and it got so bad we had to help her out of the store. She died the next day.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama is one of four states in which influenza has become a major concern. The others are Georgia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey issued a state of emergency declaration last week in the wake of the increase in flu or flu-related illnesses.
Doug Tanner, president of Atmore Community Hospital, confirmed this week that the facility has seen an increase in patients who exhibit flu and flu-like illnesses, especially in the hospital’s emergency department.
“We’ve seen a significant uptick in patients who test positive for flu since some time in December,” Tanner said. “Our emergency department doctors saw 66 patients yesterday (January 22), and a majority of them had flu or flu-like symptoms. We have patient safety huddles every morning, and our lab personnel have reported an increase in patients who test positive for flu.”
The hospital official said most, but not all, of those patients have been treated by ED staff and sent home to recuperate.
“We’ve admitted a few patients with the flu, a couple here and there, but it’s not a predominant problem,” he reported, pointing out that ACH’s walk-in clinic has seen an even higher incidence.
“Typically, our walk-in clinic sees about 19 to 21 patients a day,” he explained. “Yesterday (January 22), they saw 47. There’s certainly a lot of sickness going around.”
One of the hospital’s biggest concerns is preventing the spread of influenza and other respiratory ailments to the patients who are hospitalized with other medical problems.
“We’re asking people to be prudent about limiting their visitations,” he said. “We don’t want our patients or our staff catching the flu from visitors. We have a lot of people here who are sick with other illnesses; the last thing they need is to catch the flu or a respiratory illness on top of that.”
He added that maintaining good personal hygiene habits can help lessen the rate of flu cases.
“The best thing to do,” he said, “is wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. People need to be smart about personal hygiene.”
Other measures of fighting the malady include getting a flu shot; staying home if you have a fever; covering your cough and sneeze; cleaning and disinfecting, and learning home care.
For most healthy adults, recovery from the flu takes one to two weeks, but complications such as pneumonia can send some patients to the hospital. Children younger than 5 years old, pregnant women and seniors age 65 or older have the highest level of risk.
Alabama public health officials, who say the outbreak is a major seasonal flu situation, not a pandemic flu situation, report that much of the state’s flu activity has occurred north of Birmingham and in the Tuscaloosa, Anniston and Gadsden areas. But the illness, which has not come close to running its course, is now being reported in nearly every county.
ADPH’s Dr. Karen Landers said in an interview with AL.com that flu activity is rapidly spreading to the rest of the state and will continue to do so over the coming weeks.
“We haven’t seen all we’re going to see yet,” she said. “We can still see influenza as late as March.”
Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama’s acting state health officer, said Friday he couldn’t speculate on how soon the situation would improve.
“We’re hoping it’s peaking,” he said of the outbreak. “But you never really know.”