Flu Patients Arrive in Droves, and a Hospital Rolls Out the ‘Surge Tent’

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — By mid-January, the flu season at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest here in Allentown was bad enough to justify dragging out the “surge tent.”

The Band Aid-colored structure in the parking lot — an inflatable military-style hospital ward a bit like a bouncy castle — is outfitted with cots, oxygen tanks and heart monitors.

Sandwiched between the ambulance helipad and the E.R. doors, the tent is mostly used as a holding area for walk-in patients who need monitoring. The extra space lowers the risk of infections in the main waiting room when the coughing and sneezing is at its worst.

Some 325 patients walked into the E.R. last Monday — “the record, as far as I can recall,” said Dr. Andrew C. Miller, who runs the emergency department. The hospital admitted 108 patients.

“We thought this was peaking a week ago,” said Dr. Miller. “It hasn’t.”

Thus far, he said, this has not been the worst flu season he’s seen, but this year’s seem sicker. It may yet get worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that flu hospitalization rates across the country were the highest ever seen at this point in the season since tracking began in 2005.

The rates have already surpassed those of the 2014-15 season, when 710,000 Americans were hospitalized and 56,000 died. So far this year, 53 children have died; by the time the flu season ended in 2015, 148 children had died.

Infection rates are still rising, especially along the East Coast, where the flu arrived late. Hospitals are struggling.
The population near Lehigh skews older — a lot of retirement homes sit in these rolling hills — and the hospital is rated one of the state’s top five, so ambulances often bring their sickest patients here, said Lindsay Houck, the emergency department’s nursing director.

Normally, about a third of them need admission, she said, while hospitals nationally average about 12 percent. This winter, admissions here are creeping toward 40 percent.

At Lehigh, the most acutely ill bypass the tent and are wheeled deep into the hospital, sometimes to the one-bed isolation rooms that no one may enter without a mask.

Eric J. Scott, 68, a programmer at a tech company, was lying in one of those rooms. Sweat beaded on his forehead and ran down into his yellow surgical mask as he described the one-two punch that flu had given him.
“I’ve had it for about two weeks,” he said. “I saw my doctor, and I felt like I was on the mend.”

“But when I went to the grocery store, it just hit. My fever shot up to 101.9, and I got a real bad pain in my right side, my ribs. I felt like I’d been in a boxing match with my arms up — no defense.”

Dr. Rafay Khan, who was treating him, said Mr. Scott might have coughed hard enough to crack a rib. He also had some pneumonia, which can cause flank pain, and would need his kidney function checked, too.

“I’m admitting him,” Dr. Khan said. “He’s over 65, and he’s not eating or drinking — I can’t send him home. He needs fluids and IV antibiotics and Tamiflu.”

Hospitalizations This Flu Season

Mr. Scott said he usually got a flu shot at work but “I just didn’t remember this year.”

In the surge tent, Mark Moyer, 20, and Sarah Rogers, 22, were waiting for a note from Dr. Marna Rayl Greenberg.
Because of their hacking coughs, their boss at a local shipping warehouse had told them to leave and not return without a doctor’s note.

But Dr. Greenberg, the hospital’s vice chair of emergency medicine, produced notes certifying only that they were sick. “You need to be seen again, and then I can write you another one saying you’re well,” she said.
The couple, who had matching hand tattoos of the date they met, were clearly struggling. Their jobs pay only $9 an hour, and until they recently moved in with her parents, they had been living in a car.

“Missing work really sucks,” Ms. Rogers said. “You have to pay your bills.”

Financial need, medical experts say, plays a big role in spreading flu: many Americans go to work sick because they cannot afford to miss days. Mr. Moyer had been ill for two weeks.