The influenza season is gaining momentum in Tarrant County as more patients have started showing up in emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms.
“What we are seeing is typical for the flu season so the uptick is to be expected this time of year,” said Al Roy, a spokesman for Tarrant County Public Health.
The situation is more dire across the state, where the level of flu-like illnesses is considered high, and health officials are urging doctors to treat patients for influenza even if the rapid flu tests don’t test positive.
The Texas Department of State Health Services said Friday that caregivers should not rely strictly on the tests to determine if someone has the flu.
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“A negative result does not exclude a diagnosis of flu in a patient with suspected illness,” the state agency said Friday in a news release. “Antiviral treatment is recommended for anyone with confirmed or suspected flu who is hospitalized, has severe or progressive illness or is at a higher risk for complications.”
H1N1, which the current flu vaccine protects against, has been the most common circulating flu strain this year, officials said.
The H1N1 strain is getting more attention than usual because of four deaths of people with flu-like symptoms in the Conroe area, north of Houston. There have been two confirmed H1N1 cases in Montgomery County, where Conroe is the county seat, and “labs are being repeated on all remaining cases” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a statement posted Thursday by Montgomery County Public Health on its Facebook page.
“Flu is on the rise and causing severe illness in certain people,” said David Lakey, Department of State Health Services Commissioner in a statement. “It is not unexpected this time of year, but it’s a good reminder for people to get vaccinated and stay home if they’re sick. Flu can be deadly. People who have not been vaccinated should do so now. It’s the best defense we have.”
Only pediatric deaths from the flu are required to be reported and none have been reported in Texas, said Carrie Williams, a DSHS spokeswoman.
The CDC’s weekly update for Dec. 8-14 said the flu increasing across the country and is “already high in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.”
‘Not seeing the swine flu’
During the week of Dec. 1-7, 1,383 rapid flu tests were performed in Tarrant County — 320 more than the previous week. Of those positive tests, more than 95 percent had the Influenza A strain, which includes H1N1, according to the Tarrant County Influenza Weekly Surveillance Report.
At John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, there are two patients — a 24-year-old woman and a 55-year-old man. Both had shortness of breath and needed a ventilator to help with breathing. The male patient is still on the ventilator but the female patient is not, said Kristin Newcomer, a JPS spokeswoman.
“In every flu season, there are people who need hospitalization,” said Vitaly Golub, an infectious disease specialist at JPS.
Golub said most of the tests have shown the current H1NI strain is a milder California version — not the swine flu strain that caused a pandemic in 2009.
“We are not seeing the swine flu,” Golub said. “So far, we are seeing very typical cases for a typical flu season.”
Since Oct. 1, 97 JPS Health Network patients have tested positive for flu, according to Ria Bryant, director of Infection Control. That’s about 12 percent of all patients seen at JPS outpatient clinics and John Peter Smith Hospital.
Of those 97 patients, 21 were hospitalized, including the two currently being treated.
Local numbers on the rise
With cold weather returning and the holiday season in full swing, the number of flu cases will likely increase over the next several weeks, said Dave Spear, an emergency room physician at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth.
“Get ready,” Spear said.
Last week, Harris Methodist saw a total of 45 patients with flu or flu-like symptoms and this week it had seen 75 patients through Thursday.
Some of those getting sick had already received a flu shot.
“The flu shot doesn’t work on everybody,” Spear said.
Cook Children’s Health Care System also saw a rise in patients reporting flu-like symptoms, jumping from 83 during the week of Dec. 7 to 127 for the week of Dec. 14.
Tarrant County Public Health continues to encourage people to get a flu shot as soon as possible. A flu shot takes about two weeks to provide protection The flu vaccine is still plentiful and the peak of the season could last into February.
Other prevention tips
Avoid contact with people who are ill.
Keep your hands clean; wash them regularly.
Avoid touching your nose, eyes or mouth.
If you are sick, cover coughs and sneezes.
Source: U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention