AFN file photo When the flu shot begins to sting, it's too much for kindergartener Samuel Prusacki Tuesday. December 2009

This time is always busy for hospitals and emergency rooms, but the severity of illnesses may be above average this year, officials say.

"We always have an increase in emergency room visits during the winter due to seasonal illness," said Kimberly Day, spokeswoman for Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert medical centers and CHW Urgent Care. "We are experiencing more positive flu tests so there is some component of the flu (influenza A), pneumonia and general viral illness responsible for the increased patient visits."

The state is considering the outbreak of the flu, or influenza A, as "widespread." The Department of Public Health's weekly influenza reports for Maricopa County during the week ending Feb. 12 said, "Maricopa has a total of 2,415 cases of influenza. Since the beginning of the season this is the week with the largest number of reports."

The report mentions that this season, which began in September, the flu has been considered widespread since the beginning of January.

Influenza A is only one type of respiratory illness. Hospitals are seeing a significant increase in cases of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV. Through Feb. 12, 994 lab-confirmed cases of RSV have been reported. More than 20 percent of all visits were due to a respiratory syndrome, the report said.

All of this is causing a shortage of beds in local hospitals.

"There has been a significant increase of critical patients with respiratory illness requiring ICU level of care," Day said. "Our ER volumes are up but not excessive for this time of year. The admissions to the hospital from the ER are normal, as well; it's just that the acuity of the patients is much higher."

The hospital staff is meeting throughout the day to move patients along in the admit and discharge processes to make more beds available, Day added.

Symptoms of influenza like illnesses are a fever of 100 degrees or above, cough and/or sore throat. Symptoms of RSV are much like a bad cold. They may include a cough, a stuffy or runny nose, a sore throat, an earache or a fever. RSV is especially dangerous for infants.

It is unclear where this outbreak is coming from but respiratory illnesses are very contagious. Sickness at work, the grocery store and poor hand hygiene are some contributing factors, Day said.

"Good hand washing, taking your medicine correctly, getting rest, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet and staying hydrated with fluids," said Day about avoiding either illness. "Most healthy adults can recover fully from the flu and seasonal viral illness. The more concerning folks are the elderly and the young, along with those with debilitating medical conditions."

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