Flu fears drive record number of patients to Merced emergency room

MERCED - Residents spooked by the swine flu outbreak broke a record Thursday in the emergency room at Mercy Medical Center Merced.

And they did it even though there are no confirmed cases of the flu in the county.

Two hundred six people, a record for the hospital, sought treatment at Mercy’s ER on Thursday, according to spokesman Robert McLaughlin.

“We’ve never seen that many people in one day,” he said. Although the emergency room was flooded, the number of patients admitted to the hospital was the normal amount for a day in April, McLaughlin said.

Katie Albertson, spokeswoman for the county, said 12 kits that test for the swine flu were received on Friday, and all 12 kits turned out negative. A total of 70 kits sent with swabs from possible flu victims have been sent in from the county, she said. In California, there are 17 confirmed cases of the flu, with a total of 155 in the United States. There’s been one death in the U.S., a toddler from Mexico who died in Texas.

Parents with children at Franklin School in Merced endured a scare Thursday when 52 children turned up absent. Albertson said the children got sick after eating a meal at the school.

"We're 99 percent sure that it's not the flu," she said. The county's environmental health department was investigating the outbreak of illness in the children, she said. The health department took food samples and have begun an investigation. "The possibility that the disease was flu-related came up early in the investigation," Albertson said. "The health department and public nurses got involved, and it doesn't look like the flu."

Most of the children were already recovering from their symptoms, Albertson said. The investigation into what made them sick them is continuing.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said Friday that if a confirmed case or a strongly suspected case of swine flu is found at a California school, the school should dismiss the students for 14 days from the last known case. Previously, the Centers for Disease Control had recommended student dismissal of one week.

McLaughlin said that although Mercy’s emergency room has been able to deal with the influx of patients, people shouldn’t come to the hospital with flu symptoms.

"If you have flu or cold symptoms, stay home from work or school and contact your physician," McLaughlin recommended. Symptoms of swine flu are similar to season flu, McLaughlin added. Symptoms include a fever, sore throat, cough and body pain.

Beginning today, the hospital is restricting visitors to people ages 16 and over and those without any cold or flu symptoms. “We urge people to only come to the hospital if they have a medical emergency or their physician directs them to come,” McLaughlin said. “And if they do come with flu symptoms, please tell our staff as soon as they come in.”