Twenty-two people have died in Travis County this flu season, already four times more than last season’s total number of influenza-related deaths, and experts say there is no way of knowing when peak flu season will end.
Austin emergency rooms are handling a surge of influenza patients that has yet to taper off, said Ken Mitchell, senior vice president and chief medical officer at St. David’s HealthCare.
“Last year was a relatively light flu season; this is the worst flu season that we’ve had in four years,” Mitchell said. “It looks like it may have peaked about a week or 10 days ago, but again there has not been a dramatic decline in the number of either ER visits or positive flu tests that we’ve seen in our hospitals.”
This year’s flu season, which could last until the end of April, looks similar to the 2014-15 season, when the flu-related death toll was 17 in Travis County, said Jeff Taylor, an epidemiologist with Austin Public Health.
Last season, only five influenza-related deaths were reported in the county.
Neither Williamson County nor Hays County has reported flu-related deaths, but a high number of flu cases have been reported in both areas.
In Hays County, more than 1,400 people have been diagnosed with the flu since Sept. 1, roughly 15 times more than were reported by the same time last year.
“We are definitely seeing more cases of influenza this year than usual, but so is the rest of Texas,” Hays County epidemiologist Eric Schneider said.
Statewide, Texas has seen more than 2,300 adult deaths and four pediatric deaths related to pneumonia and influenza this season as of Jan. 17, according to the most recent data available from the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The actual number of deaths is likely higher due to a delay caused by processing time, said health services agency spokeswoman Lara Anton.
At this time last year, the state had reported just under 1,900 influenza- and pneumonia-related deaths. However, Anton said comparing flu seasons is difficult because of variations between years.
“One flu season might peak in December, and one could peak in February or March,” Anton said. “The best time to make those comparisons is when flu has come back to very low levels in May or June, then we can kind of look at the more active part of the season and make that determination.”
Despite a slight decline in reported flu cases statewide in the past two weeks, the percentage of people testing positive for the flu has recently increased slightly, causing confusion as to whether Texas has yet passed peak flu season. The flu virus will likely be circulating into March and maybe April, but it is too soon to tell for sure, Anton said.
“It needs to have a several-week decline before we can say, ‘OK, that’s probably the peak,’” Anton said. “But really it’s best to wait until later on, because you don’t know what’s going to happen with a season.”
Dallas County has seen 40 confirmed flu-related deaths this season, including one child, according to the most recent numbers from Dallas County Health and Human Services. The Houston Health Department reported two flu deaths in that city as of Jan. 6. The most recent San Antonio health data report states there has been one child death related to the flu this season.
To avoid contracting or spreading the flu, Anton urges people to regularly wash their hands, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home if they are feeling ill. She added it is not too late to get a flu shot.
High-risk patients — such as people older than 65 or younger than 5, people with chronic health conditions and pregnant woman — should get vaccinated and stay attuned to any potential symptoms, Anton said.
“I think a lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s the flu, it’s common, everybody gets it,’” Anton said. “But especially for people in high-risk groups, they need to make sure that they are monitoring it.”