Some Maine hospitals are asking visitors to wear masks and consider staying away temporarily to prevent further spread of the flu.

Influenza is hitting the state hard, with many hospitals reporting that the season is off to an early and brisk start. Supplies of Tamiflu, an antiviral drug used to treat the flu, are strained in some areas.

The flu is classified as “widespread” in Maine and 40 other states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maine health officials have investigated 65 outbreaks so far this season, far eclipsing the 10 outbreaks reported during the mild 2011-2012 flu season.

A surge of flu patients continues to wallop The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, which recorded all-time highs in patient volumes last week and on Monday postponed non-essential surgeries so staff could assist in other areas of the hospital. An overflow of patients from the emergency department were treated in TAMC’s day surgery center.

St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor has requested that anyone with flu-like symptoms who isn’t seeking medical treatment — mainly patients’ visitors — avoid coming to the hospital to protect vulnerable patients who might have weak immune systems.

The hospital stressed that there’s still time to be vaccinated against influenza.

“Even though it takes about two weeks for full immunity to build after vaccination, we expect the flu to be on the increase for at least the next several weeks, so it’s not too late to get your flu shot and have it be effective against the flu,” Jessica DeGrasse, the hospital’s infection prevention specialist, said in a news release.

The CDC has reported that this season’s vaccine is likely to offer good protection against all three strains circulating nationally. The CDC recommends that everyone older than 6 months of age be vaccinated against the flu.

On average, TAMC has seen highs of 50 to 60 patients each day for the past two weeks in its emergency department, with about 40 percent experiencing flu-like symptoms. Its walk-in facility and primary care providers at TAMC health centers in Fort Fairfield, Caribou, Ashland and Mars Hill are seeing similarly high volumes of flu patients.

With many flu patients requiring hospitalization, TAMC’s 89-bed A.R. Gould Memorial Hospital has been at or near capacity for a month.

TAMC is recommending that hospital visitors and employees wear masks. Masks are available at public entrances to its facilities throughout central Aroostook County, according to a press release.

“We’ve seen an increasing number of individuals presenting with influenza and flu-like symptoms, and as a result, our emergency department and the inpatient units in our hospital have been very busy,” Sylvia Getman, TAMC president and CEO, said in the release. “Over the weekend and into the start of the new week, we instituted measures to ensure that we meet the needs of our patients over the next several days.”

Symptoms of influenza include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Complications can include dehydration, pneumonia and bronchitis.

While Maine hasn’t experienced widespread shortages of Tamiflu, some outpatient and hospital pharmacies have reported delays in accessing supplies of the drug, according to Dr. Stephen Sears, state epidemiologist. The Maine CDC is surveying pharmacies to determine whether they have adequate stocks, he said.

“There’s a lot of flu and the potential for using up supply is pretty big,” Sears said. “But right at the moment, we’re not really experiencing shortages. Occasionally in a local area someplace might not be able to get [Tamiflu] right away, but that’s because their supplier is just backlogged, so then they go to someone else.”

Pharmacies in the Millinocket area reported difficulty obtaining the medication over the holidays. St. Joseph also has had some trouble, according to Dr. Charles Pattavina, emergency department medical director.

“We don’t know for sure that people could fill a prescription,” he said.

The state maintains emergency supplies of Tamiflu, a precaution that grew out of shortages of the drug during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, but doesn’t expect to need those stocks anytime soon, Sears said. While more patients are being treated with Tamiflu today, supplies are much more plentiful this flu season, he said.

“Hopefully the supply will keep up with the demand,” Sears said.

The drug, which comes in pill form, is most effective if taken within the first 48 hours of experiencing flu symptoms. It can benefit anyone suffering from the flu, but is especially recommended for people who are at high risk for complications, such as the elderly and individuals with chronic disease, Sears said.

Health officials and providers stressed that supplies of the flu vaccine remain more than adequate.

DeGrasse also emphasized good hand hygiene, including frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding close contact with those who are sick with the flu, and staying at home while experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...