By now, 5-year-old Trinity Olivares’ story is sadly familiar: On a Sunday in late September, the pig-tailed Rio Rancho kindergartner started vomiting. Her family took her to the hospital, the doctors put her on an IV and suddenly her heart stopped. She hadn’t had a fever and she wasn’t unhealthy, but Trinity had become New Mexico’s latest victim of the H1N1 influenza virus, or swine flu. Through KOAT Action 7 News reporter Chris Ramirez, Trinity’s mother urged other parents “to take every precaution.”
Across the state, parents—and pretty much everyone else—began to do just that. They flooded into clinics and hospitals, calling and visiting emergency rooms in unprecedented numbers.
“When the first three kids died in the state, that definitely caused a surge of people seeking our services,” Dr. Kevin Garrett, chief medical officer for Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, says. According to Garrett, roughly one-third of the incoming patients to Christus’ emergency room show flu-like symptoms—known in the medical community as influenza-like illness, or ILI—and between the hospital and its various clinics, especially those specializing in pediatric care, Christus is seeing more than 100 additional patients daily.
On Oct. 12, the hospital stiffened its visitation restrictions, prohibiting visits by healthy children, sick people or groups of more than two. While Garrett denies the new restrictions are a response to the surge in patients—“they’re just good public health guidelines,” he says—they nonetheless help contain the disease while New Mexico waits for the much-touted H1N1 vaccine recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. According to Chris Minnick, the New Mexico Department of Health’s public information officer, the state has ordered more than 42,000 doses of the vaccine from manufacturers. Of those, though, Minnick doesn’t know how many have actually arrived. Neither Urgent Care Santa Fe nor La Familia Medical Center had received a single dose as of press time, and Christus, which got its first 1,300 doses in two shipments—one from the Department of Health and another straight from the manufacturer—last week, has yet to immunize a single patient. Instead, the hospital is focusing on vaccinating health care workers.
Despite the flood of patients arriving at the ER, less than a quarter are actually hospitalized, Garrett says.
“Not everybody needs to be treated per se,” he says. Unless your swine flu symptoms—fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue or muscle aches—are severe or prolonged, or you’re in one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s specified high-risk groups (pregnant women, health care workers, children, or people with chronic health conditions like asthma or diabetes), “you’re better off to stay home and minimize your exposure,” Garrett says. Swine flu isn’t deadlier than regular influenza, he adds; it’s just more infectious. That means more people will get it, and so more people—but no greater a percentage of those infected—stand to have a serious case.
Swine flu and “regular” seasonal flu are two strains of the same disease, Type A influenza, but a vaccine for one does nothing to the other. Because of the urgency of the H1N1 epidemic, and since seasonal flu generally doesn’t kick in until December or January, Garrett says many flu-shot manufacturers have been ordered to switch production of seasonal flu vaccines to H1N1 shots. Still, manufacturers are struggling to meet demand: The Los Angeles Times on Oct. 17 reported that roughly 25 percent fewer vaccines than expected were produced. Minnick, however, is upbeat.
“We’re expecting 1.2 million doses by the end of January 2010,” he says, “and that’s enough to cover a large percentage of New Mexico’s population.”
Garrett says that after vital health care personnel have been vaccinated, Christus will begin immunizing the at-risk populations.
Still, he notes, “We don’t have a good enough sense of when supplies will be coming from the DOH, such that we can provide a free community clinic…but we will do that as soon as we are able to.”