By Haley Miller
Riverview Health Emergency Room & Urgent Care in Fishers saw 235 patients on a single day in July, when demand for antigen testing was at its peak. Although that number has since decreased, Medical Director Dr. Mark Notash said that Riverview medical staff anticipate another increase in patients when flu season begins in full force.
Flu season arriving amidst the COVID-19 pandemic presents a number of logistical challenges, including diagnosing similar symptoms, pressure on health care infrastructure and questions about quarantining. Notash said social distancing, wearing face masks and other preventative measures will be more important than ever in Hamilton County.
“If we can control the flu season, that’s going to be all the better for society as opposed to having a rampant and terrible flu season this year,” Notash said. “That would really put a strain on our resources.”
Notash said Riverview has increased staff “to meet the demands of the community.” All Riverview campuses offer rapid flu testing. However, said adequate access to care is still a concern because, in addition to the arriving flu season, COVID-19 cases are accelerating nationwide.
“We’re all seeing hospitals are starting to fill up again, especially in the Midwest and even coast to coast,” Notash said. “It’s not like it was where it was like New York City or other big population centers. Now, it’s the small towns and intermediate-sized cities across the country where we’re really seeing the biggest surges.”
Besides an increase in patients, Notash said another challenge is determining flu from COVID-19 because the respiratory illnesses present similar symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu and the coronavirus patients often have a fever and cough and shortness of breath, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose, body aches and headache.
Despite the similarities, Notash said COVID-19 has specific symptoms that frequently distinguish it from the flu, such as loss of taste or smell or a rash known as “COVID toes.” He said physicians will advise patients to quarantine at home, regardless of which infection they have, as long as their symptoms are mild and manageable.
Chris Walker, emergency preparedness coordinator for the Hamilton County Health Dept., said it’s important for residents to stay home if they feel sick. An exception would be for visiting their primary care physician.
In the meantime, health department officials will continue following Gov. Eric Holcomb’s executive orders and guidance released by the CDC to mitigate infection rates during flu season. They also will continue offering testing throughout the county.
So far, Walker said there is no reason to believe Hamilton County can’t handle the expected increase in cases this winter.
“We think we’ll be OK,” Walker said. “We’ve not had to tap back into the surge capabilities that we initially opened up in the beginning of COVID.”
Hamilton County residents can do their part to lessen the severity of flu season by following the coronavirus guidelines, according to Notash. He said it’s also essential for people to receive a flu vaccination now to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed later on.
Anyone displaying symptoms of flu or COVID-19 shouldn’t hesitate to seek medical care, Notash said.
“I know that I speak for all doctors across the country when I say that if a person feels that they are sick enough that they need medical care, they should go to the emergency department and not wait,” Notash said.
Inadequate face masks
Dr. Mark Notash, medical director of Riverview Health Emergency Room & Urgent Care, said face masks with an exhalation valve, which are increasingly common, are useless in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“When you exhale, it allows your breath to just come out unfiltered,” Notash said. “When you inhale, the flapper valve closes, and now you breathe in filtered air. So, you’re protecting yourself, but you’re not protecting anyone else.”
In lieu of those types of masks, which some users feel more comfortable in, Notash recommends placing a basic surgical mask on top of it, which allows the wearer to protect others around them while breathing in air filtered by the exhalation port.