The flu has arrived with a vengeance -- both locally and statewide -- as the number of people going to clinics and hospitals with flu-like illnesses continues to rise.
And officials are concerned that it could get worse as the influenza season moves into January and February -- its peak months.
"This season started very early and then it expanded," said Donald Murphey, medical director of pediatric infectious disease at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. "It's blossomed through December and they flooded into our clinics and our emergency rooms. Our emergency room volume through December and January has been very high."
Cook's has seen the number of flu-related visits to its emergency room jump from 41 by Nov. 24 to 479 through Dec. 29.
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Other hospitals say that they are seeing spikes in flu-like cases as well.
"We are seeing a higher volume at this time," said Robert Genzel, an emergency medicine physician with Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth.
Denton County hospitals reported 269 positive flu cases through Dec. 29. During the same period last year only two flu cases were reported, said Juan Rodriguez, Denton County health department chief epidemiologist.
"The numbers are just the tip of the iceberg," Rodriguez said. "Doctors don't have to report the flu to us, so we are just capturing a sample of what's actually out there. It's looking bad, but it's hard to say how bad it's going to be."
'High' activity in Texas
The flu season got an early start and Tarrant County health officials had barely unpacked their vaccine supplies before the first cases began cropping up in October.
"We typically do not see local activity until mid to late November," Lou Brewer, Tarrant County public health director said in a news release.
Since then, the number of flu cases has increased steadily, health officials said.
Statewide, the percentage of visits to health-care providers for flu-like illnesses was 12 percent for the week ending Dec. 29, the highest this season and far above the baseline for the state, which is 4.8 percent, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The percentages are based on information reported by health-care providers to the Influenza-like Illness Surveillance Network.
Nationally, the proportion of people seeing their doctor for flu-like illnesses was at 5.6 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Twenty-nine states -- including Texas -- are reporting flu-like "activity" as high, and 41 states say that the flu is widespread, an increase of 10 states from the previous week.
Tarrant County health officials have recorded one pediatric death associated with a flu-like illness and Denton County is also investigating a pediatric death that may be associated with the flu.
Texas has reported three pediatric deaths associated with the flu this season.
Vaccines are available
Genzel said people who come down with the flu could remain miserable for some time.
"The people who come down with the flu could have a persistent, residual cough that could last for weeks or more than a month," Genzel said. "We've got a lot of them coming to the hospital. There's no real treatment for that."
Officials say the key to avoiding the flu is to get a flu shot and that it's not too late to get the vaccine.
Walgreen's pharmacies reports that nationally, it has administered 5.5 million flu shots this year -- compared with 5.3 million to all of last season.
The vaccine was available early this year and no shortages are anticipated, officials say.
"The season could last until May," Rodriguez said. "There's still a lot of time where people could get this illness."
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752