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SWINE FLU OUTBREAK: Boro hospitals busy as scare grips Queens

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, holds Tamiflu pills during a news conference. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Howard Koplowitz and Stephen Stirling

Queens hospitals said they are on guard for the worst should swine flu continue to spread throughout the region, but stressed that the outbreak was small in scale and advised would−be patients to take a calm approach to seeking treatment if they fall ill.

Representatives from several borough hospitals said they have seen a spike in patients coming into emergency rooms complaining of flu−like symptoms, but had yet to confirm any cases of swine flu outside of the 44 that had been identified Tuesday in the St. Francis Preparatory School community.

“We’re seeing the scare right now,” said Elmhurst Hospital spokesman Dario Centrocelli. “What we’re trying to tell people is to handle it like any other time you get the flu. Right now St. Francis is the only place where there’s been anything confirmed.”

Schneider’s Children’s Hospital of the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health Care System became the epicenter for the Queens response to the swine flu outbreak over the weekend. Schneider’s officials said the hospital saw more than 200 suspected swine flu cases, many from St. Francis Prep., of which the CDC only confirmed eight cases of the new influenza strain.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease for North Shore−LIJ, said despite the onslaught of patients, none were admitted to the hospital.

“What’s remarkable is how non−seriously ill these patients have been,” Farber said.

He added that swine flu patients at North Shore−LIJ have “rapidly recovered within 72 hours.”

Jamaica Hospital said it also treated and released two confirmed swine flu cases, while Flushing Hospital admitted one swine flu patient who was released Monday.

New York Hospital of Queens said it saw upwards of 150 patients visit its emergency room over the weekend complaining of flu−like symptoms, but none were confirmed to have swine flu.

Peter Koo, owner of the Starside Drugs Pharmacy chain based in Flushing, said he has seen a fear−driven surge in purchases of Tamiflu, which the CDC said can be used to treat swine flu, and surgical masks, which have sold out at all of his stores.

“We’ve had a lot of prescriptions for Tamiflu and the manufacturer is back ordered already and so maybe in a couple days we won’t have any more,” Koo said. “The main thing here is there’s no need to rush, no need to panic over this.”

Koo said the Asian−American community, which he predominantly serves, has shown particular concern.

“I think they’re afraid because a few years ago we had SARS and they get worried now,” he said, speaking of the respiratory infection that struck Asia several years ago.

Hospitals across Queens said they have enacted plans for handling infectious disease outbreaks, which Farber said has gone smoothly borough−wide.

“We’re very fortunate to have had a number of serious dress rehearsals and the response to this outbreak has been phenomenal,” Farber said.

Ole Pederson, spokesman for the Medisys network, said the group’s four hospitals — Flushing Hospital, Jamaica Hospital, Peninsula Hospital and Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn — have been in constant contact with the city Health Department and are monitoring the situation closely.

“Obviously, with flu season we deal with this on a regular basis,” Pederson said. “In this case, we’re taking a little bit more of a level of preparedness because we’re not sure what level this is going to end up being.”

Pederson said patients who are suffering from flu−like symptoms should not panic and unless they are suffering from serious health problems, such as difficulty breathing or a very high fever, they should simply contact their family physician and rest.

“The best thing to do is not suspect right away that you have swine flu,” he said.

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e−mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 138.

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