DOH: Lines at The Miriam Hospital caused by Memorial closure, viruses including flu

THE FLU SEASON and other viruses, along with the closure of Pawtucket's Memorial Hospital, have increased the demand for emergency department services at The Miriam Hospital on Providence's East Side. / COURTESY LIFESPAN
THE FLU SEASON and other viruses, along with the closure of Pawtucket's Memorial Hospital, have increased the demand for emergency department services at The Miriam Hospital on Providence's East Side. / COURTESY LIFESPAN

PROVIDENCE – A combination of new patients from the shuttered Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island in Pawtucket and a busy flu season are causing long waits and lines at The Miriam Hospital’s emergency department, which the R.I. Department of Health is addressing by urging self-triage and diverting some emergency calls to other hospitals.

Joseph Wendelken, public information officer at DOH, in response to a question about reported lines at The Miriam, said Memorial’s closure has caused an increase in demand at local hospitals.

In November 2016, with Memorial Hospital’s emergency room running, Miriam received 318 emergency transports, according to DOH records. In November 2017, the hospital received 424 transports, about 106 more calls in that month compared with the previous year.

Comparing emergency transports month to month in 2017, Miriam’s emergency room received another 52 patients in November than it did in October following the closing of Memorial Hospital’s emergency department on Nov. 11.

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Data from December 2017 and January 2018 were not immediately available.

Rhode Island Hospital also saw an uptick in emergency room transports this year, though that rise in calls does not appear to be related to Memorial’s closed emergency department. Rhode Island Hospital saw 84 and 85 emergency room transports in October and November 2016, respectively. In October 2017, the number of emergency transports jumped to 109 in October 2017 before Memorial closed, then 107 in November 2017, the same month Memorial’s emergency room closed.

Some of the increase in demand is attributed to a busy flu season in Rhode Island. In January, the DOH announced cases of flu in Rhode Island were widespread, triggering the requirement that unvaccinated health care workers in hospitals and health care facilities wear surgical masks. Widespread influenza is declared with outbreaks of influenza and recent laboratory-confirmed influenza in at least half the regions of the state.

So far in the 2017-2018 influenza season, there have been 14 influenza-related deaths reported, according to DOH records. In December 2017, the DOH reports about 1.78 percent of illnesses recorded in the state were influenza-like – those with a fever higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a cough and/or sore throat with no other known cause. Since then, the reports of influenza-like illnesses has risen to 5.31 percent of reported illnesses, as of the fourth week of 2018.

“It has not just been the flu, but other viruses as well, such as norovirus, that have been driving many people to Rhode Island’s emergency departments,” said Wendelken.

To help address the volume at emergency departments, Wendelken said the DOH has worked to educate the community that illnesses like norovirus, less severe cases of the flu, sprains, and back pain can all usually be treated more quickly by a primary care provider or at a walk-in clinic than at an emergency room.

“But yes, the closure of Memorial Hospital has had an impact on the volume in area emergency departments. For that reason, we have started meeting with the leadership from Care New England, Pawtucket, Central Falls and area EMS responders to implement steps to address the additional volume that other emergency departments are seeing,” Wendelken said.

“It comes as little surprise that there is an increase in area emergency department visits after the closure of Memorial Hospital — a facility that was seeing more than 30,000 emergency patients a year — especially when you consider the strength of this year’s flu virus,” said Ray Sullivan, spokesman for the United Nurses and Allied Professionals.

Rob Borkowski is a PBN staff writer.