- By London Gibson American-Statesman Staff
With 29 deaths reported since September, Travis County is experiencing a flu season almost six times more deadly than last year’s.
In recent weeks, a rising percentage of doctor’s visits statewide related to the flu and an increasing prevalence of a different flu strain – flu B – have left experts uncertain about whether the worst is over
Hays County reported its first flu death of the season this week, an elderly person, county epidemiologist Eric Schneider said.
“We did see, this past week, a small decline in the number of positive flu tests,” Schneider said. “But I don’t think we’re done with the peak of flu season just yet because I did get a higher number of people who reported what we call ‘ILIs,’ which is influenza-like illness. … So people are still sick.”
In Hays County this past week, more people tested positive for flu B than flu A, Schneider said.
“It’s hard to tell if that means that flu B is about to spike, or if it’s just, you know, they’re both still high up there,” Schneider said. “So we may still see higher numbers, it may be we peaked early and we might be on the decline. It’s hard to tell at the moment.”
In Williamson County, there have been no reported influenza-related deaths but more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the flu, according to the county’s most recent report published Feb. 2.
Deb Strahler, marketing and community engagement director for Williamson County’s health district, said both flu strains are circulating in the county, and that the number of flu cases reported in the county has remained steady over the past couple of weeks.
Statewide, flu reports don’t yet appear to show that the state has reached the end of peak flu season. Lara Anton, Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman, said doctor’s visits for influenza-like illnesses would have to decrease consistently for several weeks before the department could determine whether the season had peaked.
“We usually look at the percentage of visits due to influenza-like illnesses, and that actually went up in the last week,” Anton said. “And that’s sort of consistent with what’s happening nationally, as well. … We don’t believe we’ve peaked yet.”
The percentage of doctor’s visits statewide due to influenza-like illnesses is about 14.5 percent — the highest it has been in three years.
More than 2,800 people, including five children, have died in Texas from pneumonia and influenza, according to the most recent state report.
Dallas County has seen 53 flu deaths, more than the total deaths from the previous three flu seasons combined, according to updated numbers from Dallas County Health and Human Services. Elsewhere in North Texas, Tarrant County has tallied 24 flu deaths, Collin County 14 deaths and Denton County seven deaths, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Houston has recorded two deaths, and Bexar County has one confirmed pediatric death.
More than half of those who died of the flu statewide this season have been people older than 65. Those older than 65 are considered high-risk patients, along with children younger than 5, people with chronic health conditions and pregnant women.
Nationally, one of every 14 visits to doctors and clinics were for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu, the Associated Press reports. That’s the highest level since the swine flu pandemic in 2009. Last week, 42 states reported high patient traffic for the flu, up from 39.
The heavy flu season has also put a strain in places on some medical supplies, including IV bags, and flu medicine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tally shows hospitalization rates surged to surpass the nasty season of the winter of 2014-2015, when the vaccine was a poor match to the main bug.
So far, however, deaths in the U.S. this season from the flu and flu-related pneumonia have lagged a little behind some recent bad seasons. There are as many as 56,000 deaths connected to the flu during a bad year.
The flu usually peaks in February. This season had an early start, and health officials initially thought it would also have an early peak. But so far it hasn’t worked out that way.
Ken Mitchell, senior vice president and chief medical officer at St. David’s HealthCare, said high-risk patients should avoid those who are sick and large crowds as much as possible. He also said it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
“We think this flu season will probably continue for several more weeks and maybe as long as a couple of months,” Mitchell said.