Hospital waiting rooms were cluttered with flu victims Friday as the ailment that has walloped Orange County for weeks began to take a bigger toll. Children's Hospital of Orange County, now treating 300 children a day with runny noses and other flu-like symptoms, declared itself "overwhelmed."
The situation has become so hectic that on Friday, officials at CHOC began screening would-be patients at the door to identify the most serious cases and to avoid exposing mild sufferers to more contagious patients in the waiting area.
"This is the worst I've seen in 10 years," said Dr. Greg Buchert, director of ambulatory care at CHOC. "Every day is worse than the day before."
Outside CHOC, physicians at hospitals and clinics countywide have also experienced the crush of thousands of patients seeking attention this month.
"We are seeing lots of people with viral illnesses," said a spokesperson at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. "This is not a normal flu season. We are definitely seeing an increase."
Of the 300 patients per day that have kept CHOC busy in the past four weeks, about 30 to 40 are actually thought to have the flu, Buchert said. But dozens of others have also been seen with flu-like symptoms--such as runny noses and high fevers of 104 to 106 degrees. The clinic is also seeing many children with gastroenteritis--vomiting and diarrhea.
Buchert said the hospital is seeing at least 50% more viral cases than last year at this time.
"We're seeing so many kids now who came in two weeks ago with a virus and now have the flu--or siblings of kids who came in," said Buchert. "With increasing numbers, (the crowded waiting room) is serving as a vector for these diseases."
Hospital staff screened patients as they arrived Friday, sending the most serious cases in first for immediate treatment.
Officials also urged people to stay away from the hospital and treat themselves at home if possible. But for those wanting to get treatment and avoid the waiting room, the next available call-in appointment is Tuesday, said Jeanne Seymour, a hospital receptionist.
"Every chair, every waiting area, and even outside was filled," she said.
Some parents with children who had arrived at the hospital by mid-morning had to wait most of the day.
By late Friday afternoon, the waiting room was full of parents staring at the television or sitting silently as their children walked around or dozed off.
One of those enduring the wait was Ana Diaz of Santa Ana and her 6-month-old daughter, Joanna. "I called for an appointment at 1:30," Diaz said at 5:40 p.m. in the afternoon. Joanna, who was wrapped in a yellow cotton blanket, has been coughing for several days, Diaz said.
The wait at CHOC was prolonged even further because many of the hospital's physicians, nurses and clerical staff are out sick, officials said.
It was difficult for health-care officials to determine what types of viruses are prevalent, because most clinics and hospitals were treating patients without running a full battery of tests to tabulate specific illnesses.
"We don't have the manpower with the incredible volumes" of patients to obtain samples for all the patients, Buchert said.
The experiences of doctors and patients at CHOC and other area hospitals bolster the findings of an informal survey of selected area health clinics conducted recently by the Orange County Health Care Agency. It detected an increase in the number of people seeking treatment for viral illnesses this season.
"It seems worse this year," said Dr. Hildy Meyers, an epidemiologist with the county. "We haven't had a bad influenza season for several years. This year, we appear to have seen an increase."
County health officials are also paying close attention to cases of influenza-A, a severe strain of the flu virus that threatens serious complications to those who suffer from bronchitis, high blood pressure and emphysema.
"We have confirmed three influenza-A infections," Meyers said. "But there is certainly more out there."
The Health Care Agency provides vaccinations for those at high risk of suffering complications from flu symptoms.
Meyers said that the exact number of viral infections is not available, but health officials began receiving reports from county schools, day-care centers and offices more than three weeks ago of high absentee rates attributable to flu viruses. Some schools have reported class absentee rates of up to 30%.
Physicians say that the best self-treatment for flu symptoms is to stay home and get plenty of rest and fluids, while taking ibuprofen for fever and pain relief.
Children with flu symptoms should never be given aspirin, which has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a potentially fatal disease, CHOC and County Health Care Agency officials warned.
Parents should seek medical attention for children who will not drink, become listless and lethargic, or whose symptoms worsen despite initial attempts at home treatment, according to a CHOC report.
Said Dr. Julie Ralls of the Newport Walk-In, a Newport Beach clinic: "I see more people, but I don't think they need to be here." She said many people could do themselves and others a favor by first attempting to take care of some symptoms at home.
Officials at CHOC said the best way to combat the spread of flu symptoms is for people to wash their hands frequently and cover their mouths when coughing.
Despite the packed waiting rooms, health officials said that acute cases are getting immediate attention.
At the Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center emergency room in Mission Viejo, patients did not have to wait.
"It is heavier this year," said Ann Dean, a nurse at the Mission Viejo hospital. "(But) basically patients are getting immediate attention and resources are holding up."
Consuelo Rodriguez, director of the Child Development Center at the YWCA North Orange County in Fullerton, said teachers started new napping patterns with the children as a result of the flu epidemic. "Our toddlers sleep on little mats on the floor. We sleep them head to feet so when they're napping, even if they're 2 feet apart, they're not breathing close to each other."
She said the children are constantly hugging and kissing one another. "It's wonderful, but they take all these germs back and forth." Then the staff gets it too, she said. "It's a vicious cycle."
Rodriguez said she has seen a lot of diarrhea, vomiting and high temperatures in the children. "I don't understand it. They don't get over it. They come back to school and they're on antibiotics continuously."
Willa McManigal, a day-care provider in Huntington Beach, said she has seen more flu among mothers than children.
"Three of my moms this week have it," she said. Instead of going to work, she said they drop their children off, go home sick, and send the dads to pick them up at night. "The dads seem real healthy," she said. "I don't know what's going on."
Times staff writers Lanie Jones, Lynn Smith and Eric Young contributed to this report.