It’s shaping up to be another bad flu season for Texans with dozens of deaths related to the illness already reported and at least two more months of the season to go.
Dallas County officials have reported 18 flu deaths — all adults — so far. A 3-year-old who did not receive a flu shot has died in the San Antonio area. Travis County officials have confirmed seven adult deaths, already more than in each of the previous two years.
“The whole state has seen an increase, although the very last week in December there may have been a slight drop in some of the indicators — just slight so we don’t know if it’s peaked yet,” said Philip Huang, medical director of Austin Public Health.
State officials have seen a spike in cases a little earlier than is typical.
The predominant strain of the virus this season is H3N2, which was also the most common flu type three years ago when Travis County saw 17 deaths.
Making matters worse, H3N2 has been mutating as it spreads across the country, possibly making it more resistant to this season’s vaccine. A recent study out of Australia, which recently wrapped up its flu season, showed that a similar vaccine wasn’t all that useful there.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will do its own analysis, said Jennifer Shuford, infectious disease medical officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“In previous flu seasons when H3N2 has been predominant, that flu season has been marked with greater severity of illness and hospitalizations especially in high-risk groups, and right now we’re seeing that with steep rises in hospitalization in people who are 65 years and older,” she said.
Almost all St. David’s HealthCare hospitals are brimming with patients, according to the system’s chief medical officer, Ken Mitchell. With the recent bout of cold weather and people traveling and socializing during the holidays, Austin area doctors aren’t just seeing spikes in flu but also people with stomach bugs and respiratory viruses.
“Those other things on top of the influenza outbreak have really contributed to a surge in the number of patients being seen in the emergency rooms,” Mitchell said Wednesday. “And so for patients that have milder to more moderate symptoms, we strongly encourage them to see a primary care physician, go to an urgent care clinic, even a free-standing emergency room.”
Reporting of flu cases or adult deaths related to the illness is voluntary. Flu is difficult to track because people don’t always go to the doctor when they’re sick, let alone get tested for the illness.
The state tracks only pediatric deaths due to the flu, and only one has been reported so far.
In Travis County, more than 1,200 tests conducted by laboratories and hospitals have come back positive for the flu, Huang said.
Children under 5 and adults older than 65 are the most vulnerable.
The youngest people to die in Travis County from flu so far this season were in their 50s. It’s not clear whether they had received the flu shot or if there were other health conditions that contributed to their deaths, Huang said.
Williamson and Hays counties each have reported more than 700 flu cases but no deaths.
“At this moment, they are coming in just as quick as they were in December when flu season hit full swing,” said Eric Schneider, epidemiologist with the Hays County health department, which had seen only 30 cases of the flu at this time last year.
He said it’s impossible to predict how each flu season will pan out.
Although vaccines are never 100 percent effective, doctors and public health officials still recommend getting the flu shot every season because it can also reduce the length and severity of the illness. Doctors say there’s still time for people to get the shot — which takes two weeks to become effective — and stay protected for the rest of the flu season.
“It takes an entire community working together to prevent flu outbreaks,” Schneider said.
The flu: What you need to know
What are the symptoms? Fever or chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue and vomiting and diarrhea, which is more common in young children than adults.
How does it spread? Through small droplets from people who are talking, coughing or sneezing.
How to prevent it? Get an annual flu shot, cover coughs and sneezes with the crook of the arm, wash hands with warm soap and water, and stay home if sick.