BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — If you don't have the flu yet, get a vaccine.
If you think you have the flu, visit your doctor's office or an urgent care center instead of the emergency room.
And if you know you have the flu, stay home to avoid exposing others.
That's the message local health care providers are trying to convey in light of an increasing number of influenza cases.
Munson Medical Center's Emergency Department is reporting high numbers of patients with flu-like symptoms, making for long waits and putting other patients at risk for exposure. In response, the hospital is encouraging residents to go to their own physician or an urgent care center if they think they need treatment.
Donna Rinker, a family nurse practitioner at Bayside Docs Urgent Care Clinic, said the clinic has been giving 30 or 40 flu vaccines a day but still has seen multiple influenza cases daily for almost three weeks. For every 10 patients tested, eight test positive, she said.
"We're seeing influenza strain A, B and both A and B," she said. "We tell our patients that if we suspect influenza or it's confirmed, they need to be out of the public for seven days after the illness onset or 24 hours after the end of a fever."
The Grand Traverse County Health Department is monitoring flu in the area and talking to pharmacies to make sure they have anti-viral medications like Tamiflu, which can lessen the severity of symptoms, said Wendy Trute, the department's health officer.
"We've definitely noticed this year there's more cases we've seen in the database than we've seen in the past and that's an indicator that there's more influenza out there," she said.
But having flu-like symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have the flu, experts caution.
"We get a report weekly from the Munson lab when flu tests are done," said Michael Collins, medical director for the Grand Traverse County and Benzie-Leelanau District Health Departments. "In the most recent report, only 15 percent of those tests are positive. That's still a significant number, but that means the majority of people who look like they have flu in our area seems not to have it. It gives the impression that there are other flu-like illnesses in our area."
Suttons Bay Elementary School had eight students out on Friday and about half the absences are flu-related, said principal Roger Arvo. At Eastern Elementary School in Traverse City, that number may be much higher.
"We do have a situation where we have about 40 students out and we are in the process of making calls to try to learn what they are out ill with," said Traverse City Area Public Schools associate superintendent Jayne Mohr. "I do not have confirmation yet in terms of what is happening there. We did an extra cleaning in that school last night and we have more cleaning scheduled for this weekend."
Amy Braun, medical assistant for Student Health Services at Northwestern Michigan College, said her department won't open to students until Monday, but has already run out of flu vaccine.
"We went through 250 doses and we just ordered another 50. Those were spoken for since yesterday," she said. "And that's just for staff."
GT health officer Trute said her department will offer flu shots by appointment next week, but that some pharmacies are running out of the vaccine.
People who get a flu shot should know that it takes about two weeks to kick in, said Collins.
Those who do get ill should take care not to expose others by taking proper preventive measures like covering their noses and mouths when they cough or sneeze and staying home from school or work, he said.
"All those people that think they're indispensable to or for someone should know that people prefer that you don't expose them," he said.