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Swine Flu Just 'Business as Usual' for Hospitals

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, May 4, 2009

With all the relentless and fevered reporting about swine flu, the A/H1N1 virus, I called two hospitals that have been identified by the 24-hour mainstream news cycle as certified hot spots to get an on-the-ground perspective.

How are the employees holding up? Is the pressure of treating a horde of coughing, wheezing, fevered, and contagious people taking its toll on an overworked and frazzled hospital staff? Is anyone showing up for work?

"Not much to report. It's business as usual," says Lorraine Orlando, vice president of human resources at New York Hospital Queens.

The hospital has treated a number of people who are suspected of having the virus, but is awaiting confirmation from CDC.

"Whether it's gunshot wounds or flu or whatever, our people come to work, they do their jobs, they are smart about following CDC guidelines," Orlando says. "Everybody is out there buying Purell now. Well, hospital workers have been using Purell for a long time."

Karin Barrett, program coordinator for employee health services for Arlington-based Texas Health Resources Inc., offered similar less-than-alarmist rhetoric when asked about the impact swine flu was having on the 18,000 employees at the 14-hosital system. "Nobody's really expressing any anxiety. We are treating it no differently than any other flu season. It's just that we have two of them this season," Barrett says.

In Texas, 43 cases of swine flu had been confirmed as of this morning, including 13 cases in three counties that THR serves. Citing HIPAA privacy constraints, THR officials declined to say if any of those cases had been diagnosed in their health system. Regardless, Barrett says employees are taking the news in stride. "I know most of us are helping-type people. You just feel like you need to come in to work," she says.

Neither hospital is in denial about the potential problems posed by swine flu, nor are they ignoring the issue. But Barrett and Orlando express confidence in their hospitals' measured responses to the virus. In short, they're not freaking out. Neither is staff.

Hospital workers tend to be a fairly tough breed to begin with, so they are not easily spooked about a public health issue that has rattled the public and fueled endless anxiety-laced media coverage.

The best tool they can give staff, both women stressed, is communicating about the status of the virus and the safety precautions that should be taken, with an emphasis on hand washing, and sneezing and coughing in sleeves to avoid contaminating hands. Otherwise, the only issue has been higher-than-normal patient volumes, many of whom are the so-called "worried well."

"Nothing has been activated. There's been nothing formal. No drills or alerts or anything has been called," Orlando says. "What you see in the newspapers isn't always the case."

I don't necessarily think this flu reporting is a case of media hysteria or an overreaction by public health officials. The news is a little bit fevered, admittedly, but there are still a lot of unknowns about this virus, the threat is still with us, and an abundance of caution is warranted.

Still, it is refreshing to get a level-headed report from front-line healthcare professionals dealing with the virus. They are aware of the issue. They are taking the necessary precautions. The situation is under control. Stay calm. Lorraine Orlando says it best: "We're a hospital. We deal with sick people every day."


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John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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