Local hospital emergency rooms “exploded” with patients in the last two weeks, health officials reported.

Some of the blame can be put on the flu, but an increase in the spread of respiratory virus is responsible as well, said Jim Prohaska, director of emergency services at Mesa’s Mountain Vista Medical Center.

Prohaska said the number of patients has increased, as well as the severity of how sick they are.

“It’s respiratory virus and it’s flu. They’ll start with a respiratory illness and it turns into pneumonia. A lot of them are admitted. They’re not just being sent home,” he said.

That’s especially true for the elderly population that’s coming through his doors, he said.

“The average age of our patients went up 10 years (in the last two weeks),” he said. “The elderly are getting hit hard.”

Mesa’s Mountain Vista Medical Center serves pediatric patients in the emergency room, but if they need more specialized care, they are sent to other facilities because the hospital does not have a pediatrics unit.

Prohaska said one reason the elderly are being hit hard is because of a “lack of health care.”

“People are not getting their flu shots. They’re waiting to come in because they don’t have insurance. So when they come in, they’re so much sicker,” he said.

Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief medical officer of Banner Health’s Arizona East Region, said her facilities are seeing “relatively low” flu numbers, but “quite a bit of other viral illnesses that’s respiratory.”

“We’re seeing an increase in the emergency department and some admissions,” she said.

When necessary, Banner facilities are set up to transfer patients to other Banner facilities, either because of space or a need for specialized care, she said.

“We’ve been working on processes to make sure we’ve been moving patients along the continuum,” and releasing those who can go to rehabilitation centers, hospice or other facilities to make beds available for other patients.

State health officials said it’s proving to be an active flu season. The latest report from the state shows that 190 cases of influenza were confirmed Dec. 23-29, with 790 cases reported since the season began Sept. 30, 2012. That’s a 4,289 percent increase from the same time period in 2011.

One reason is because the first confirmed cases were found in October 2012, two months earlier than the last flu season.

“Last year was an unusual flu season. It started in December. We are predicting to see higher numbers. We do expect it to peak in January and February,” said Clarisse Tsang, acting infectious disease epidemiology program manager.

So it’s now a good time to get a flu shot, if you haven’t, she said.

The flu vaccine this year covers three strands of influenza. For one strand, there’s been a 99 percent match, she said. For the other, it’s been a nearly 70 percent match.

“It’s always hit or miss every year and our scientists work really hard to lessen that. … It’s a good match this year compared to other years,” she said.

The vaccine is created months in advance of the flu in order to meet production deadlines.

It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to be fully effective.

Banner instituted a requirement this year for flu vaccines for all staff members who are involved with patient care. She said they have 100 percent compliance with the new rule.

The state is also seeing an increased number of RSV or respiratory syncytial virus. It appears as a common cold in adults and older children. But it can be serious in infants because of the amount of mucus that can be produced.

So far this year, there have been 360 confirmed cases in the state. That’s a 135 percent increase over this time last year.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or mreese@evtrib.com

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