LUMBERTON — Because of an increase in flu-related illnesses, Southeastern Regional Medical Center will begin restricting visits to patients starting on Monday.
Anyone with flu-like symptoms is asked to not visit patients at the medical center until they have been symptom-free for at least 24 hours, according to hospital spokesperson Amanda Crabtree. In addition, no one under the age of 18 will be permitted in patient care areas or in areas above the first floor.
Only two immediate family members or caregivers will be allowed to visit a patient at a time. The Emergency Department will follow the same restrictions as other areas, but only one immediate family member or caregiver will be allowed in per visit.
Southeastern Regional will become the most recent North Carolina hospital to limit visitor access in response to the flu.
Duke University Health Systems Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, UNC Health Care in Chapel Hill and Mission Health in Asheville have all announced restrictions.
Five people have died from influenza in North Carolina during the last week, bringing the number of flu deaths in the state to 13 during the past year. One of those was reported by the Robeson County Health Department.
Between Dec. 21 and Dec. 28, 186 flu cases were reported in the state. Ninety-eight — about 53 percent — were positive for the H1N1 subtype, known as the swine flu, according to a Department of Health and Human Services weekly report.
Bill Smith, the director of the county Health Department, said the percentage of H1N1 cases is particularly large this year, although the flu season has technically not begun in this part of the state. Smith said flu season begins at the end of January and continues into February.
Also unusual, said Smith, are the ages of the people dying from the flu symptoms. Typically, the illness affects the elderly and the very young the most.
Of the the state’s 13 flu deaths, 12 were among people younger than age 65. Seven were between 25 and 49 and five were between 50 and 64, according to the report.
“These are not older people who are dying, it’s middle-aged people,” Smith said. “They had other health issues … the flu exacerbates what you have.”
Dr. Obiefuna Okoye, an infectious disease specialist with the Lumberton Medical Clinic, said the flu certainly tops the list of ailments his patients experience, but characterized the current season as typical.
Not including its satellite clinics, Southeastern Regional Medical Center has seen 111 flu cases and 17 flu-related hospitalizations since Dec. 1, according to Crabtree.
Okoye recommends anyone with flu-like symptoms — like a runny nose, fever, aching muscles or sore throat — stay at home.
As always, said Smith, people concerned about the flu should cover their mouths when they cough, wash their hands often and get a flu shot.
“Even at the beginning of January, the shot can still help you,” Smith said.
Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, The Clinic at Walmart on Fayetteville Road, Southeastern Urgent Care Pembroke, Southeastern Urgent Care Lumberton and Southeastern Pharmacy Health Mall all offer flu vaccines. Walk-in visits are available at The Clinic at Walmart.
“Visiting a medical clinic for treatment of flu or flu-like symptoms is recommended over visiting the Emergency Department unless the patient is experiencing life-threatening symptoms,” Crabtree said. “It is also suggested to call ahead to confirm hours of operation and appointment availability.”