The Travis County flu death toll has now hit 45, with January and February proving the deadliest months so far this season for the illness, health officials said Thursday.
The 2017-18 flu season is shaping up to be the county’s deadliest in at least a decade, and state health officials aren’t ready yet to say the worst is over.
While flu activity is declining in Travis County and statewide, the Texas Department of State Health Services says the illness is still widespread.
Two people died in Travis County from complications from the flu in November, and six more deaths followed in December.
In January, 25 people died of flu-related causes, Austin Public Health spokeswoman Carole Barasch said. Twelve flu-related deaths were reported in February.
No children have died from the flu so far this season. Most victims have been people 80 years old and older, officials said.
The number of deaths reported so far is more than double the figure from the 2014-15 season, the previous record holder for flu-related deaths in Travis County. Seventeen people died from the illness that season, health officials said.
Two people died from the flu in the 2015-16 season and five in 2016-17, records show.
Austin Public Health only had death figures from the last four flu seasons available. Officials, however, said the current season is the deadliest in at least the past 10 years.
Multiple strains of the virus are circulating this season, and it is possible to test positive for the flu more than once, so health officials are still encouraging people to get flu shots.
“Stay at home if you’re sick, cover your cough if you sneeze, get your flu shot and be very mindful of washing your hands regularly,” Barasch said. “We know it’s a very bad flu season.”
Reported flu deaths in Travis County have far outnumbered those in neighboring Hays County, where one death was reported in February. There have been no flu-related deaths recorded in Williamson County this season.
However, those reported figures might not tell the full story.
Doctors and hospitals are only required by law to report pediatric deaths resulting from the flu. In Hays and Williamson counties, health officials do not receive death certificates from hospitals and physicians like they do in Travis County, and officials use those to tally flu-related deaths.
“We don’t have the staff to acquire every death certificate like Travis County does,” Hays County epidemiologist Eric Schneider said. “If (doctors) suspect an influenza death, they can report it to us, but they don’t have to.”
Schneider said Thursday that flu cases in Hays County have declined for the third week in a row.
“It definitely appears that we are on the downward slope on the peak of flu season,” he said. “That does not mean flu season is over by any means.”
January and February typically are the peak of flu season, which generally runs from October to May, but it varies from year to year, state health department spokeswoman Lara Anton said.
“Flu seasons peak at different times every year,” Anton said. “You can’t really compare one season that peaks later to one that peaks earlier.”
Doctor visits for the flu in Texas and in Travis County have declined in recent weeks, the latest data show. But Anton said that has happened already twice this season, before rising again.
“Some areas of the U.S. have started to come down significantly,” Anton said, but Texas is not seeing a decline “to the same degree.”
More than 4,000 people in Texas have died this season as a result of complications from the flu, including from pneumonia, data show. That number is expected to increase when the state health department tallies February deaths, Anton said.