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Northwell Health has new in-system method of tracking flu

The “flu dashboard” provides data on patients that will help in allocating resources among the medical giant’s hospitals across the metropolitan area.

Anthony George, left, coordinator of Northwell Health's

Anthony George, left, coordinator of Northwell Health's emergency management team, and nurse Eddie Reyes at Northwell's "flu dashboard" in Great Neck on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Data analysts and doctors at Northwell Health have created what they call a “flu dashboard” — a high-tech method of tracking people with influenza admitted to the system’s hospitals or treated in its emergency rooms.

The method provides flu data within the Northwell system’s 17 hospitals on Long Island, in New York City and in Westchester County, which can help determine how to allocate resources for treatment, administrators said. It captures the number of patients who have tested positive for the flu, as well as patients’ ages, gender and ZIP codes.

The new dashboard, announced Tuesday at a news briefing, is the brainchild of analysts at the health care giant’s Krasnoff Quality Management Institute, who worked in collaboration with the health system’s public health emergency experts and emergency department doctors.

“We all know it’s a bad flu season this year. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable,” said Stanley Cho, an epidemiologist and senior research analyst at the Krasnoff Institute, one of the lead developers of the tracking system.

He collaborated with Mark Swensen, emergency management coordinator at Northwell Health and his team, as well as with Dr. Salvatore Pardo, vice chairman of emergency medicine at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.

As flu mounts on Long Island and beyond, methods of tracking cases have become increasingly important, especially in light of an epidemic that has yet to trend downward, doctors and virus-hunters Islandwide said.

The dashboard is based on viral tracking methods developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of Health, Cho said, noting that the system allows Northwell to “pinpoint exactly which hospitals are experiencing high rates of flu-like illness.”

Knowing that, he added, allows the health care system to allocate masks, the antiviral medication Tamiflu, intravenous bags and other flu-fighting resources to those facilities.

A map of the Island, reminiscent of the state Health Department’s Flu Activity Map of New York, was displayed in large scale at the briefing. Northwell flu-emergency experts can see a similar depiction on their computer screens and know where the respiratory illness is most prevalent based on diagnoses at Northwell facilities.

Within the past week, the 12 Northwell hospitals that have been fully integrated into the system have seen more than 10,500 patients with flu-like symptoms. About 2,700 were hospitalized, Northwell officials said.

Swensen said the data collection is so swift — and accurate that he and his colleagues ultimately hope to use it to notify school districts that are in an area of high flu activity.

The CDC assesses flu activity across the nation, and the state Department of Health collects data in New York from county health agencies, which track flu incidence in their respective jurisdictions.

In addition, Nassau University Medical Center for years has served as a hub of respiratory viral-tracking on the Island, identifying respiratory illnesses of all kinds that are actively spreading.

In recent weeks, doctors in both Nassau and Suffolk counties have said the proliferation of influenza has kept them busy.

Dr. Susan Donelan, a specialist in infectious diseases at Stony Brook University Hospital, told Newsday last week that both influenza A and B were being seen at her hospital.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases for the Northwell Health system, said he hopes the presence of influenza B might signal that the current epidemic is peaking.

Influenza B usually appears as influenza A strains begin to decline, he said.

But Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday in a briefing that an end to the nationwide epidemic still is nowhere in sight.

Northwell administrators said their new methodology is a better barometer of assessing flu activity within its medical system than data from the CDC or state Health Department, because it is more quickly available.

Experts at the CDC have cautioned that no tracking system ever gives a full picture of influenza in any region, because most people with the respiratory infection self-treat the illness and never seek medical care.

The CDC, while tracking the flu, also offers ways to prevent it.

Agency officials encourage the public to seek out prevention tips, which are posted on the CDC website. For those who have not gotten a flu shot, the CDC’s online site, vaccinefinder.org, allows people to find the closest provider of the vaccine by entering a ZIP code.

Dr. Gary Leonardi, an NUMC virologist, has long emphasized that a variety of pathogens can cause respiratory illnesses during this time of year, and a host of seasonal viruses initially cause symptoms that are indistinguishable from influenza.

Leonardi and his colleagues identify the viral causes of respiratory illnesses in specimens tested at NUMC as well as from those collected in Long Island nursing homes.

In his most recent report, Leonardi found that the influenza A strain known as H3N2 is the most prevalent, but H1N1 is circulating, as is influenza B.

He and his team convey results from the specimens they test to the state Health Department and to the National Respiratory Enteric Viral Surveillance System, a program of the CDC.

The CDC’s enteric surveillance program also monitors the geographic circulation of nasty seasonal viruses other than the flu, such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, human parainfluenza viruses and human metapneumovirus, as well as adenoviruses, which cause the common cold.

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