Flu in New York is surging, prompting concerns about hospital capacity


FILE – A flu vaccine is readied. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

New York state is experiencing its worst flu season in years at a time when the number of reported COVID-19 infections has been steadily increasing, prompting concerns about further straining an already stressed hospital system. 

The state reported 27,171 new influenza cases for the week ending Nov. 26, a 76% increase from the previous week, when 15,450 cases were reported statewide, according to the state’s weekly flu tracker.

A total of 68,926 flu cases have already been reported in the state so far this flu season, which typically runs from the late fall through the winter, far surpassing the 6,569 cases reported the same time during the last three flu seasons combined, according to state data. 

The surge in flu cases was not unexpected, according to David Liebers, an infectious disease specialist at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. 

Liebers noted that flu cases were down dramatically in recent years, which he attributed to masking and social distancing protocols implemented during the height of the pandemic. Now that the mandates have been lifted and more people are out and about, he said, the virus is more easily transmissible. 

“We have protected ourselves from the flu for the last couple of years because of COVID,” Liebers said. “The mitigation efforts with masking and social distancing – all that also serves to prevent the transmission of influenza.”

However, while flu cases are on the rise, Liebers said Ellis Hospital has yet to see an influx of patients with the virus requiring serious medical attention. The hospital has seen on average five or six flu patients a day, most of whom are prescribed an antiviral such as Tamiflu and released, Liebers said. 

Locally, there have been 511 flu cases reported in Saratoga County, 200 reported in Schenectady County, and 143 and 139 reported in Montgomery and Fulton counties, respectively, according to state data. 

The surge in flu is reason for concern, according to Liebers, particularly with another post-holiday surge in COVID-19 infections predicted. Similar surges were seen the past two years throughout the country.

Liebers said the number of COVID cases the hospital has seen has started to level out in recent weeks and patients are less ill than previously reported. Most of the hospital’s COVID patients, he said, are discovered to have the virus through a routine screening test while being treated for another ailment.  

Liebers is not ruling out another surge, noting that the virus to this point, has been unpredictable. Still, he believes the surge will be far less than in years past.  

The state reported 7,615 new COVID cases on Dec. 1, the most recent day for which state data is available. The number of cases over a seven-day period was 24.2 per 100,000 people that same day. 

A week earlier, on Nov. 25, the state reported 17.7 cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, according to state data.

Similar numbers have been reported locally, including in the Capital Region, which was averaging 24.2 COVID cases per 100,000 residents in the seven days preceding Dec. 1. Saratoga County was averaging 9.3 cases per 100,000 residents over the same period, while Schenectady County had an average of 10.4 cases per 100,000 residents in that same time. 

In the Mohawk Valley, home to Montgomery and Fulton counties, the region averaged 8.7 cases per 100,000 over the same period. Fulton County, however, was experiencing the highest COVID rate in the six county region, with 17.1 cases per 100,000 in the seven days preceding Dec. 1. Montgomery County had a rate of 6.6 cases per 100,000 during the same period. 

At Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, the rise in flu cases coupled with another winter surge in COVID could be problematic according to Geoffrey Peck, the hospital’s vice president of business development. 

The hospital, Peck said, has experienced an influx in emergency patients with flu-like symptoms, prompting concerns about having to divert patients — something the hospital has been forced to do on several occasions in recent months, including earlier this week. 

“If this high volume trend in our emergency department continues, then yes, I anticipate that this could happen again. We could be in a diversion situation again,” Peck said. 

Nathan Littauer has been forced to slash outpatient procedures as it tries to meet the needs of the community, which has put the hospital in a tough position.

“It is hampering our ability to grow,” Peck said. “We’d like to start to grow back out prepandemic volumes for outpatient procedures and things like that, and lack of staff is keeping taking care of the immediate rather than the strategic.”

There are similar staffing concerns at Ellis Hospital, according to Liebers.

Unlike Nathan Littauer, while Ellis Hospital hasn’t been forced to divert any patients, those patients have experienced an increase in wait times, something Liebers attributed to a combination of an influx of patients and staffing difficulties. 

Still, while he said he believes the hospital will be able to handle any challenges that come with flu season, he cautioned that flu season can be unpredictable. 

“I think capacity is a concern,” Liebers said. “Right now, what we’re seeing here locally, we’re handling it.”

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.



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