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Hospitals Weather Flu Season Despite An IV Drug Shortage

A picture of an intravenous drip bag of saline.

Medical facilities are facing a national shortage of intravenous drugs, especially saline IV drips. Saline is used to treat dehydrated patients.

Manufacturers are stepping up production to meet need, but the shortage has presented problems to hospitals since December, when flu season began.

Zack Moore is an infectious disease epidemiologist with he North Carolina Division of Public Health. He said this is an especially bad time of year to have a limited saline supply for two reasons.

“Flu season is one. There's also been a lot of norovirus going around, which is a virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea,” Moore said. “So either one of those could lead someone to have to go into the hospital and possibly need IV fluids.”

Moore said IV bags can only be used once.

A WakeMed pharmacy manager Lynn Eschenbacher said hospital staff meets every morning to take stock of IVs and coordinate distribution among patients. 

“We like to have a certain number of days-on-hand, so that we make sure we have plenty in the hospital,” said Eschenbacher. “We might be running with less days on hand, so we're making it from shipment-to-shipment.”

Eschenbacher said they’re using smaller IV bags whenever possible for more efficient dosing. She said no patients have been harmed by WakeMed's saline drip shortage.

Three people died of the flu in North Carolina last week, down from the previous week and a sign that flu season is winding down.

In all, the state Department of Health and Human Services says 85 people have died from the flu since the season began in November.

Rebecca Martinez produces podcasts at WUNC. She’s been at the station since 2013, when she produced Morning Edition and reported for newscasts and radio features. Rebecca also serves on WUNC’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability (IDEA) Committee.
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