Already short on saline IV bags, this year’s flu season is causing D.C.-area hospitals to burn through their stock at an alarming rate.

This year’s flu season is noticeably worse than others in recent memory, no doubt due to the fact that one of the harshest strains — the H2N3 strain of Influenza A — was not included in this year’s flu vaccine.

Interesting enough, health officials can gauge how bad a flu outbreak is based on how many, or few, saline bags hospitals have.

Since there is no cure for the flu, the best way to treat the illness is with rest and fluids. When people get to the hospital with the virus, they are usually severely dehydrated. Doctors and nurses turn to saline bags to help increase a patient’s fluid intake.

According to the CDC, 46 states are now seeing widespread, above-average “flu activity.” That means that pretty much every state’s hospitals are being forced to treat more and more influenza patients, and they’re burning through saline faster than they can replenish their stores.

On top of that, hospitals are saying that their saline stores and supply lines were already depleted after Hurricane Maria. When most people hear that Hurricane Maria is partially to blame for the shortage, they assume that is because the supplies were used to care for storm victims. That’s not the case. The real reason is that Baxter — one of the main companies that manufactures saline IV bags — has been without power at their Puerto Rico manufacturing facility for months. Without power, a work force, or functioning infrastructure, the company could not produce the saline bags that U.S. hospitals have been relying on. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb released an update last week stating that he expects saline supplies to return to normal in early 2018 now that the Baxter plant’s power has been restored. But the promise of more IV bags weeks down the road doesn’t help area hospitals dealing with a flu wave now.

Dr. Sujata Ambardar, an infectious disease physician at Inova Fairfax Hospital and chair of the hospital’s infection control department, warned that this year’s flu season could just be getting started.

“We do have to keep in mind that sometimes the flu season starts in November-December, but it can peak in late January, sometimes early February even.”

At Inova Fairfax, Ambardar noted that he was seeing more and more people being brought in for influenza and pneumonia (which can be a complication stemming from the flu). There has also been a noticeable increase of patients between the ages of 50 and 64. This segment of the population is usually considered “high risk” for influenza, so it is not all that surprising that during such a terrible flu season, the most vulnerable demographics would see the most hospitalizations.

Saline bags aren’t particularly expensive or difficult to manufacture. While hospitals may charge patients an arm and a leg for a bag, it really only costs them a few cents to purchase. Still, hospitals in the D.C. area, and around the country, are warning that the IV bag shortage should be taken seriously. Until things calm down, many hospitals are instructing doctors to turn to other hydration methods instead of using saline solutions. With saline IV bags absolutely essential to many life-saving treatments, doctors are starting to cut back on their use for influenza treatment and turning instead to water, Gatorade, or Pedialyte.

Health officials believe that you can also do your part to help mitigate this crisis. If you haven’t received a flu shot already, it is still recommended that you get one. Even if it is less successful at preventing the most prevalent flu strains, it will help prevent against many strains and stop you from spreading them to more vulnerable sections of the population. Flu season can last well into March, so it definitely isn’t too late to get the vaccine, and if you have health insurance, there is no out-of-pocket cost as long as you get the vaccine from an in-network provider.

If you do get the flu, you should stay home from work or school and treat it yourself with rest and plenty of fluids. If you feel the need to visit the emergency room, make sure you are suffering from the flu — and not just the common cold. While not a tell-tale sign, a good way of differentiating between the two is with temperature readings. If your body temperature rises above 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit, then you most likely have the flu.

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