A seventh person in Tarrant County has died of a flu-like illness, but North Texas officials say the influenza epidemic may have peaked locally.Tarrant County officials did not give out any information about the individual who died.Of the seven known Tarrant County flu-related deaths, four were age 70 or older, two were in their 40s and one was in their 30s, said Russell Jones, chief epidemiologist for Tarrant County Public Health.At least 53 flu-related deaths have been confirmed in North Texas including 35 in Dallas County, seven in Tarrant County, five in Denton County, four in Collin County as well as one in Hunt County and one in Wise County.In Tarrant County, the percentage of reported flu-like illnesses dropped from 10 percent during the week ending Jan. 11 to 8.8 percent during the week of Jan. 18.“It looks like we hit our peak,” Jones said. “We’re hopeful that the numbers we’ll keep going downward in the upcoming weeks.”That doesn’t mean there won’t be more deaths from flu-like illnesses, Jones said. In most flu seasons, the deaths are reported for several weeks after the peak.“We’ll still be above epidemic levels into February,” Jones said. “We’re going to have flu cases into March.”Flu shots still availableThat also means no one should drop their guard just yet.Officials are still encouraging those who haven’t gotten shots to get vaccinated and anyone who starts having flu-like symptoms to see a doctor within the first 48 hours.John Peter Smith Hospital is still under code yellow, which means some elective surgeries have been canceled and extra staffing has been added. JPS officials are encouraging anyone who is sick to go one of the six community clinics that have extended evening and weekend hours through Sunday night.Last week, MedStar reported that ambulances were being forced to wait as long as 90 minutes because of the backlog in emergency rooms. MedStar spokesman Matt Zavadsky said Friday that call loads and and wait times are almost back to normal, but that MedStar will be watching call loads closely this weekend as the weather improves.He wasn’t ready to declare that Tarrant County had reached the peak of the season.“I would say we’re past our recent spike,” Zavadsky said.At the six JPS Community Clinics, wait times were far less than at the hospital’s emergency department.“We want to expedite their care as much as possible,” said Jodie Anderson, JPS regional director of community health, who is in charge of JPS Health Center-South Campus and JPS Health Center-Stop Six/Walter B. Barbour. More than 300 people have gone to the six community health clinics since extended hours began on Jan. 16.Manjula Cherukuri, medical director at the South Campus, said seven patients came in Friday with flu-like symptoms and three said they would have gone to the hospital if the clinic had not been an option.“I do advise patients to seek care as soon as possible,” Cherukuri said. “If you have to seek care, do so in the first 48 hours. It can decrease the intensity.”‘Admissions are decreasing’Last week John Peter Smith Hospital was averaging about 340 patients a day in the emergency department, about 40 above its daily average. But the numbers were steadily dropping this week.John Peter Smith had 12 patients in the hospital with the flu on Friday and two are in the intensive care unit on ventilators.The number of patients testing positive for the flu also dropped this week at all of Texas Health Resources’ Tarrant County hospitals, said spokeswoman Megan Brooks.For the third week in a row, Cook Children’s Medical Center saw a decrease of patients with flu-like symptoms. During the week of Jan. 18, Cook Children’s saw 192 patients with flu-like symptoms, a drop from 289 during the week of Jan. 11.“Influenza activity here at Cook Children's, in the DFW area, and across Texas and the U.S. is declining,” said Donald Murphey, Cook Children’s medical director of pediatric infectious diseases. “The numbers of admissions are decreasing. At present, most of the flu cases have been the new 2009 Flu A H1N1 strain.” In Dallas County, the number of cases was also dropping, said Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zachary Thompson.But nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said flu activity remains high across most of the United States.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna