Emergency rooms at Portland’s two largest hospitals were crammed with patients Monday, a surge that hospital officials attributed to the state’s influenza outbreak.

By late Monday, there were more than 115 people seeking treatment at Maine Medical Center’s emergency department – a number that was above average, said Dr. Mike Baumann, Chief of MMC’s Emergency Medicine.

“We peaked at 116,” Baumann said, adding that the ER normally has an average of 80 patients. A lot of people suffering flu-like symptoms come to the ER for treatment, but many are sent home to recover.

At one point Monday, the hospital was boarding 24 patients in the emergency department while they waited for hospital beds to become available.

“The flu has definitely been a contributing factor,” Baumann said, noting that the number of patients awaiting beds had dropped to 17 by late Monday night.

Baumann said the outbreak has strained the hospital’s resources. Since the flu is considered an infectious disease, a patient can’t be placed in the same room with someone who is at risk of becoming infected.

“It’s already a tight situation with patient beds, but when you add the flu season to that, it makes a tight situation all that more difficult,” said Clay Holtzman, Maine Med’s director of communications and public affairs.

Most of the patient rooms at MMC have double beds, which is one of the reasons why the hospital hopes to break ground next spring on a $512 million expansion that will add 128 single-occupancy patient rooms. Holtzman said single-occupancy rooms will help the hospital cope with future infectious disease outbreaks like the one they are now seeing.

“It has been a severe flu season and I think that is what we are experiencing now,” Holtzman said.

Mercy Hospital’s emergency department, which is located on State Street, also was straining Monday to keep up with an influx of sick patients, many of whom were seeking treatment for influenza-like symptoms.

Dr. John Southall, director of Mercy’s Emergency Medical Department, said Mercy’s ER was filled with patients.

He said most of the patients he observed were “really sick,” adding that “we have more people waiting than we like to see.”

“It’s very busy. All the emergency department rooms are full and we have patients waiting,” Southall said. He was unable to say how many of those patients were suffering from the flu, but said it’s likely that the flu was contributing to the surge in activity.

Emily Spencer, a spokeswoman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wasn’t able to provide an update on the number of flu cases in the state so far in the 2017-2018 season, but the state’s most recent influenza surveillance report available online said there had been 2, 307 confirmed cases and 28 influenza deaths in Maine as of Jan. 27.

The flu strain circulating in Maine is still predominantly A H3N2, one of the most virulent strains, especially for seniors.

Flu season runs from October through May, and nationally, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported widespread flu cases in every state except Hawaii.

Nationally, there were 65,735 confirmed cases of influenza through Jan. 13 – the most recent national data available, according to the CDC. On Friday, the CDC reported that a total of 53 children have died of the flu this season.

Many people recover from the flu at home. Symptoms may include: fever, chills, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, sore throat, headaches, fatigue and coughing.

Both Maine Medical Center and Mercy Hospital encourage people who are not feeling well to check first with their primary care physician before going to a hospital emergency room. They also encourage sick people to go to urgent care centers to avoid the long wait they may encounter at a hospital ER.

Southall said that an urgent care center can often treat a person’s illness, while an emergency room is better equipped to intervene in more severe cases, such as when a patient is dehydrated and needs intravenous fluids.

“Patients in the emergency room are going to be seen in order of acuity, not when they arrive,” Southall said. That means a person seriously hurt in a motor vehicle crash will be seen before someone seeking treatment for the flu.

Southall said Maine saw an early start to the flu season before it tapered off. Now it has returned, he said.

“It’s just ebb and flow,” Southall said, adding that Maine’s flu season should taper off in March or April.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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