In an attempt to divert the crush of patients with flu-like illnesses from emergency rooms, the JPS Health Network is expanding weekend and evening hours at six neighborhood health care centers.
“We’re making them available and trying to give them alternative sites because the ERs are busy; they’re swamped,” said Dr. Gary Floyd, chief medical officer at JPS Health Network, Tarrant County’s public healthcare system.
“Really, with flu-like symptoms, there’s not much more an ER is going to do than a clinic can.”
On Tuesday, John Peter Smith Hospital issued an internal “Code Yellow” to deal with the demand for beds and the number of people converging on its emergency department with flu-like symptoms. It was the first time since the Super Bowl ice storm in February 2011 that the code had been implemented.
“We’re trying to tell people we’re seeing increased patient volumes,” Floyd said. “We do have limited bed capacity. In response to that, we initiated our Code Yellow. That is not unusual for us. That helps mobilize resources for us and helps heighten awareness.”
As part of Code Yellow, only life-saving procedures are being performed. Routine or elective surgeries have been postponed.
On Thursday, the onslaught of patients had diminished somewhat. In the JPS emergency department at 5 p.m., there were 91 patients, including 13 waiting to be admitted to an inpatient bed. For January, the average number of patients in the emergency department per day has been 334 but it has been as high as 380.
“This is the best we’ve looked in two weeks,” said Meg Bryant, director of Emergency Services.
As the county’s Level 1 Trauma Center, JPS must reserve enough capacity to accommodate trauma patients, such as people seriously injured in wrecks or shootings.
Ten patients already admitted to the hospital have tested positive for flu; three of them were in the intensive care unit. At one point, the hospital had as many as 26 patients with flu admitted and 10 in intensive care.
“I hope we’ve seen the peak, but I won’t swear to that,” Floyd said. “Sometimes it will come in waves.”
Also Thursday, MedStar officials reported that the ER backlogs seen Tuesday night have eased. On Tuesday, some ambulance crews had to wait as long as 90 minutes before the patients they were transporting could be admitted to emergency rooms because of the number of people ahead of them seeking treatment.
On Wednesday, MedStar was prepared to send specialized paramedics to emergency rooms to supervise patients so that ambulances could answer calls, but that step wasn’t needed, said MedStar spokesman Matt Zavadsky.
“We did not have to do that,” Zavadsky said. “It was not anywhere near what it was like on Tuesday night.”
MedStar is also stepping up a program to get some patients at both Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth Hospital and at JPS hospital back home. Under the program, a physician can discharge a patient and have MedStar paramedics check on them at home.
“It takes some patients who might normally be held overnight in the emergency room and releases them back home,” Zavadsky said. “We do followups with them to see if they’re doing OK and get them to their doctor’s appointment the next day.”
Zavadsky said the program could affect only one or two patients at each hospital but could slightly ease the demand for beds.
With this year’s flu appearing to be stronger than recent strains, Floyd is urging people with symptoms to see their doctor as soon as possible.
“If they have a headache, fever, generalized aches and pains, they should try to be seen in the first 48 hours,” Floyd said. “The best that the treatment can do is shorten the course. Once you’ve had it four or five days, and you come in and say ‘Gee, I feel horrible,’ there’s not a lot we can do. But if you get treated in the first 48 hours, it can shorten the time you’re sick from seven to eight days to three to four days.”