Flu hits Texas early and hard
Originally published in the Beaumont Express
The sounds of the season are sprinkled with sniffles, snuffles and snorts. All that hacking this early, before the end of the year, portends a potentially ferocious flu season, physicians and public health officials said this week.
Already, Southeast Texas is seeing a high incidence of the bug. Beaumont-Port Arthur region ranked third in the country for flu activity for the week ending Dec. 16, according to Walgreens' Flu Index, which measures prescriptions for anti-viral medications.
The same week Southeast Texas ranked third, 81 people were tested for influenza at the emergency room at Beaumont's Baptist Hospital, a dramatic spike from the five people the year before, according to Deborah Marciniak, director of infection prevention.
Widespread vaccination is key to preventing the flu from spreading, Marciniak said. Doctors, drug stores and grocery stores offer the vaccine. The vaccine is available for the uninsured at local health department clinics.
The Beaumont Health Department's immunization clinic has administered more than 1,000 doses since the start of flu season in September, director Sherry Ulmer said. But that is not nearly enough.
"It's never enough," Ulmer said. "There should always be more people getting flu shots."
Of the district's 395 students, 89 missed last Thursday. That number dropped to about 30 on Monday, but the district doesn't plan to relax its prevention procedures, Superintendent Kendall Smith said.
Students experiencing flu-like symptoms are being sent home immediately, and school maintenance staffs are working regularly to keep surfaces disinfected, Smith said.
"The bus drivers are even wiping down all the seats after every single route," Smith said.
Influenza cases have been increasing in Texas and across the nation since November, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The uptick in illness has proven deadly. The state's first pediatric flu death in November was among eight nationwide, the CDC reported.
This month, Texas hit another milestone. In the first full week of December, reporting health providers said 7 percent of suspected "influenza-like illness" cases tested positive for the virus, exceeding this season's baseline for high activity in Texas.
"We are seeing more respiratory illnesses in Texas. We are seeing more confirmed influenza in Texas, and all of this seems to be on the rise," said Dr. Jennifer Shuford, infectious disease medical officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services. "Our influenza-like illness and influenza activity both appear to be earlier this year than they have been the last two seasons."
On Nov. 30, the Galveston County Health District reported 268 lab-confirmed flu cases since September. During the same period in 2016, 32 cases were reported.
Still time to vaccinate
If there's any good news in all of this, it's that the flu usually hits hardest in January and February, which means there's time to get vaccinated.
"The No. 1 thing that people can do is get a flu vaccine. It usually takes about two weeks for people to experience immunity. It's not too late because flu season runs through March," said Dr. Brian C. Reed, director for disease control and clinical prevention for Harris County Public Health.
Health authorities recommend vaccinations for people 6 months and older. Those at high risk of serious illness and death from the flu include people 65 and older, pregnant women, young children and those with chronic health conditions.
Allison Winnike, a public health attorney and the new president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, said she's worried that people will forget about vaccinations amid the recovery from Harvey and that skipping the shots will result in fewer people with protection in the Gulf Coast region this season.
"The basics of life - getting a roof over your head, clothes on your kids, figuring out where to get a hot meal - those come first, and sometimes we put our own health care needs second," she said. "People who normally would be getting their flu shot in September or October, well, sometimes that gets put on the back burner."
People may be traveling for the holidays or living in less-than-ideal conditions after Harvey, Marciniak said. But a flu shot is still a necessary safety precaution.
"It's not too late to get the flu shot," Shuford said. "We have not hit our peak activity yet, so there's still time to get the flu shot and for it to be beneficial."
The youngster who died from the flu last month lived in the greater San Antonio area, Shuford said. The child, who had an H3N2 influenza virus, had not been vaccinated.
Reed, a family physician, said those who want to try to dodge the illness can achieve a few ounces of prevention through basic hygiene and common courtesy.
"Lots of washing of the hands and cover your mouth when you sneeze," he said. "Wipe down common areas like the kitchen or your desk. Stay at home when you're sick. Don't go to work or school and make others sick."
If you're prescribed antiviral treatment, he said, be sure to take the medication. Patients often can shorten the course of illness by at least one day.