Department of Health stops testing for H1N1, labs overwhelmed

By Leland Kim - bio | email

HONOLULU (KHNL) - Swine flu and other types of influenza continue to put a strain on Hawaii's healthcare system. The number of people who have flu-like symptoms is so great, the Hawaii Department of Health has stopped testing for the H1N1 virus.

Health officials say the labs are overwhelmed and there are just too many samples to test. If the H1N1 virus continues to stay strong in the fall and winter months, doctor's offices and hospitals could be much busier than what we're seeing right now.

Six people dead, and at least 1,400 have contracted swine flu in Hawaii. The H1N1 virus doesn't seem to be slowing down quite yet.

"People shouldn't be panicked about it, but it should be a reminder, a wakeup call to everyone, that this is a time to take care of your own health," said Dr. Sarah Park, the state's chief epidemiologist.

She adds, those who have medical problems should be especially careful.

"It can happen pretty quickly," said Dr. Park. "The virus itself may not be what kills you but if you have a complication, like a bacterial infection on top of that, or your underlying medical condition is exacerbated, you might succumb to much severe illness much faster before you can seek medical help."

Hawaii labs have been bombarded with possible swine flu cases, so, for the time being, they've stopped testing for H1N1.

"There's just too many people who are presenting with flu-like illness beyond what the laboratory capacity is," said Dr. Park. "Our concern is not really counting every case out there, because they're all circulating at this point and management of a patient with influenza like illness should not differ based on subtype or type necessarily at this time."

And flu season is just around the corner. While Hawaii's fall and winter months aren't as severe as those on the mainland, doctors here will keep a close eye on the situation.

"As far as this coming fall, there's always concern when kids go back to school," said Dr. Park. "They're in close proximity to each other constantly."

So if H1N1 stays at the same level and there's an increase in regular seasonal flu this fall, "that translates to a very heavy healthcare load on all of our physician practices and community clinics and emergency departments," said Dr. Park. "And it could be a real problem in terms of trying to deliver good medical care to everyone equally."

The swine flu vaccine should be available in October, and those in "high risk" categories will get them first. But the regular seasonal flu vaccine is available for everyone, and that will be out in late August or early September. It will be available from your primary care physician.