Emergency rooms across the country and right here in East Tennessee are seeing a rapid rise in flu cases. Doctors say the number of flu patients going to the ER has dramatically increased compared to years past, and that's not a good sign as the peak of flu season isn't expected for a few more weeks.
For the Morristown Hamblen Healthcare ER, it's not just the virus that's spiking ER trips. The flu and a 24-hour stomach bug spreading through the Lakeway area has prompted a rise in ER visits.
It means Dr. Rao is working double-time.
"Pulling the resources needed, but a lot of the specialists are helping out, helping the primary doctors out," he said.
Several East Tennessee hospitals have been seeing this increase in patient load, largely fueled by the flu season.
"Especially after the H1N1 in the past, the flu does kill people, and we found that out and it became public knowledge that people are scared," said Dr. Rao.
At UT Medical Center, doctors have seen 219 reported flu cases in the ER so far this season. That's more than the total number of cases for the past two years combined.
"It usually starts to die down in March. I'm not sure if that's going to happen. I can see flu cases go all the way to May. There's some talk that there may be a year where the flu never goes away," he said.
Doctors say the height of the season will be around the end of January to mid-February.
Dr. Rao does not know how many patients will be walking through the doors, whether it's the flu, or the stomach bug, or both.
"We're trying to get the patients out faster so they can go home so we have more room for the sicker folks," he said.
Fort Sander's Regional also saw a spike in flu cases. They're up to just over 200 reported cases so far in the last two months, and they say that's a "big increase" from one year prior.
At work, the store and out to eat, there are all kinds of germ-infested surfaces that could carry the flu virus or other illnesses. The AARP has released a list of germy items you shouldn't touch.
First on their list is restaurant menus. They say the flu and cold viruses can survive for 18 hours on hard surfaces. Lots of hands touch that menu.
Experts also say beware of lemon wedges and condiment dispensers at restaurants. When you go to the restroom, watch out for door handles and soap dispensers.
Grocery carts are also dirty; a 2007 study showed two-thirds are contaminated with fecal bacteria.
Rounding out the list of germiest places are airplane bathrooms and doctors' offices.