NBC 10 I-Team: Flu cases, ER closure lead to long waits at hospitals

State health officials say widespread flu is causing long wait times in hospital emergency rooms. (WJAR)

It’s a perfect storm causing crowded emergency rooms at Providence area hospitals: the flu virus is widespread in Rhode Island, making many people sick, and patients have fewer places to go for help.

“It’s a domino effect,” said Deputy Chief Paul Casey, who runs Emergency Medical Services for the Cranston Fire Department.

The Rhode Island Department of Health said Memorial Hospital’s ER in Pawtucket was treating about 80 people each day. Because it closed down, those 80 people must now be absorbed by other hospitals in the Providence area.

Making things worse, hospitals across the state are seeing more people sick with the flu virus, as well as the norovirus.

That means hospitals are turning ambulances away due to patient safety, a practice called diversion. The NBC 10 I-Team learned that’s happened 19 times in the first eight days of 2018, compared with 22 times in all of January 2017.

"Probably, since the first of the year, I've heard it more than I did almost all of the second half of last year,” Casey said of diversion.

The Department of Health said the flu virus is the primary reason for the surge in ER visits, but acknowledged that people who would have used the Memorial ER now have to be treated elsewhere.

"For the amount of sickness that we're seeing, the volumes at emergency departments that we're seeing are not unexpected, but they're still high," said Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the Department of Health.

Wendelken said the best way to avoid a long wait is to stay out of the ER unless it’s a true emergency. Instead, call your primary doctor or urgent care if possible.

"There are some people who genuinely need to go to the ER for the flu,” he said. “But for other people it might just be out of habit."

Patients should also keep in mind that calling 911 and arriving at the hospital in a rescue for flu symptoms doesn’t mean you won’t have to wait, Casey said. That’s because hospitals still triage patients based on their symptoms, regardless of how they arrive.

"A lot of times people are ending up in the waiting room, even when they're being transported by ambulance or rescue to the hospital,” Casey said.

The Department of Health said the best defense is still a flu shot, because there are several months of flu season left. Even if you do catch the flu virus, the shot makes the symptoms less severe, potentially keeping you out of the hospital.

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