U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Card / Flickr.
Influenza activity is high across the state of Texas, with the number of cases more than doubling since flu season began in October, according to weekly reports from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). And CDC experts say it's likely to get worse.
Hospitals are noticing an increase in emergency room visits from people complaining of flu-like symptoms, and one private San Antonio school canceled classes so that its classrooms could be thoroughly disinfected.
This year, more than 80 percent of flu cases involve the H3N2 strain, a strain of the influenza A virus that causes more health complications and is more difficult to prevent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anton said that while flu vaccines are typically between 40 percent to 60 percent effective, the effectiveness against H3N2 is around 30 percent.
In a teleconference on Friday, Dr. Dan Jernigan, head of the CDC’s Influenza Division, said that flu season began early and is now at its peak, which explains the “very rapid increase in the numbers of people coming in to see their doctors or health care providers.”
“If we were to compare this to that kind of activity that occurred in the past, it’s looking a lot like the activity from 2014-15 and from 2012-13,” Jerrigan said. “Both of those seasons were seasons where the strain H3N2 was the predominant strain, a strain [that is] is going to be associated with more cases, and it’s going to be associated with more hospitalizations, and it is associated with more deaths.”
While the rates of flu in Texas are continuing to rise, DSHS spokeswoman Lara Anton, said that the flu outbreak is considered only “moderate” in severity compared to recent years.
“The 2014-15 [flu] season was considered to have high severity, and while at times the rates are closely mirroring, we are not hitting those levels,” Anton said.
Regardless of severity, San Antonio is taking the flu outbreak seriously.
San Antonio Christian School closed for the day Friday for what schools officials called a “flu day.” Director of Development Tracy Smith told the Rivard Report that the school was “trying to take a proactive approach” to the “noticeable increase in the absence of students” on campus.
She said that a cleaning company will sanitize every surface campus-wide, and “germicidal bombs” will be released. “Catching this epidemic early and breaking the cycle of exposure is vital to minimizing the spread of the virus to more families,” she said.
In North East Independent School District, which serves more than 66,000 students, 125 flu cases have been confirmed in the district; in December, there were 319 confirmed cases. NEISD Communications Director Aubrey Chancellor told the Rivard Report that campus nurses believe that the flu count may be higher because " many physicians are treating for flu based on symptoms alone, and not actually testing for flu," so they aren't formally diagnosed.
Teachers are encouraging good hygiene at all grade levels to prevent the spread of germs. At NEISD's Claudia Taylor Johnson High School, band director Jarrett Lipman emailed parents encouraging them to have students thoroughly wash the mouthpieces of their instruments to eliminate germs and avoid sharing instruments.
San Antonio Independent School District spokeswoman Leslie Price said that district-wide, 56 students were sent home for exhibiting flu-like symptoms in a span of four days. Price said that while they aren’t “taking a big hit” to their attendance, the school is consistently working on sharing information on campus about infection prevention and where and how to obtain a flu shot.
Dr. Juan Garza, assistant clinical director at University Hospital and an emergency room physician, said that on a typical nine-hour shift, he might see seven or eight people who arrive at the emergency exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
“We have had increased emergency room volumes and patients admitted for influenza illnesses,” Garza said. “But it’s on a similar path to previous years.”
Garza said that improved education about influenza and the different strains will help to ensure people get proper treatment, and that it is important for people with existing health complications, such as people diagnosed with lung disease or diabetes, to get properly diagnosed and treated.
Garza stressed the importance getting vaccinated – even with the flu season well underway. He said the vaccination is the primary defense against most strains of flu.
“Despite some reports stating that it might not be as effective as previous years, it is important to get the vaccination,” Garza said. “Avoid work if you are sick to help prevent the spreading of the virus, exercise good personal hygiene, and most importantly, avoid persons or groups that have signs or symptoms of the flu.”