Fort Worth

As deaths mount, this flu season is the worst since the swine flu pandemic of 2009

Nurse Reggie Withers tends to flu patient Louise Dominguez,84, as her son Al Dominguez, left, sits nearby inside the Emergency Room at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, Calif.
Nurse Reggie Withers tends to flu patient Louise Dominguez,84, as her son Al Dominguez, left, sits nearby inside the Emergency Room at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, Calif. TNS

A healthy Weatherford teacher dies in a matter of days.

A Fort Worth woman survives her first bout with the flu in December, but catches it a second time and dies.

A Fort Worth man has his feet and nine fingers amputated from septic shock after contracting pnuemonia and the flu.

These alarming stories serve as a reminder that this is the worst flu season since 2009-10 when a swine flu outbreak swept across Texas and the U.S.

"The flu kills every year," said Cedric Spak, infectious disease physician at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center-Fort Worth. "When you look at the statistics on flu deaths every year, it is staggering. Every year we lose thousands to the flu."

But this year has been especially bad, according to Tarrant County Public Health.

Last week, the percentage of flu-like illnesses being reported by healthcare professionals in Tarrant County increased from 10.6 percent to 11.6 percent, the highest since the 2009-10 flu season, said Russell Jones, Tarrant County Public Health chief epidemiologist.

The percentage of students missing school was 6.9 percent.

The flu has killed at least 26 people in Tarrant County, which is likely just the tip of the iceberg since the law doesn't require adult deaths to be reported. In Dallas County, 62 deaths have been reported.

Nationally, flu activity continues to rise in all states except Hawaii and Oregon, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

And while the outbreak isn't showing any signs of going away, its dynamics are changing. During the fifth week of 2018, influenza B comprised 53 percent of the cases compared to 47 percent from influenza A, or H3N2, which has been the strain associated with most hospitalizations and deaths.

"It's coming on strong," Jones said.

Influenza B typically arrives at the latter part of the season but it's made an early appearance this year. The good news is the flu shot is typically a good match for the B strains. The bad news: Those who've already been sick with an A strain can also get the B strain.

Complicating matters this year is the poor performance of the flu shot against A, the dominant strain this year.

A study found the flu shot only 17 percent effective against the H3N2 strain in Canada. The results were similar in Australia where the flu shot was only 10 percent effective during the Southern Hemisphere's winter flu season.

Flu shot 'reduces the severity'

But Spak said the flu shot is still very important.

"Vaccines are there to protect the population," Spak said. "It is not a condom. It is not a seat belt. It alters susceptibility to the whole population."

Finding out whether those who died from the flu had a shot isn't as easy as it seems. But Spak has seen instances in which patients who died from complications from the flu never got a flu shot.

"When the flu turns out, the vaccine attenuates the illness," Spak said. "It reduces the severity. You're not as sick as you would have been but that's a very difficult metric to quantify.

At John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth and JPS's clinics in Tarrant County, positive flu tests show that the influenza season has not yet peaked.

There have been 579 positive tests in February, compared to 1,947 in January and 938 in December.

JPS Hospital has opened a flu clinic to divert traffic away from the emergency room and it remains open, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, said Kris Newcomer, JPS spokeswoman.

At Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D., medical director of Infectious Disease, said the number of influenza B cases is now outpacing influenza A cases.

She urged parents to pay attention to the symptoms their child may be exhibiting.

"I always say don't sit at home and worry," Whitworth said. "At least call you doctor and get their advice."

The swine flu pandemic

This year's flu outbreak is widespread across the U.S. and is tracking the 2014-15 season, when 34 million Americans contracted the flu. Of those, 56,000 died and more than 700,000 were hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 148 pediatric flu deaths in 2014-15. So far there have been 63 pediatric deaths in the U.S.

But the 2009 swine flu was worse and reached pandemic levels, with more than 57 million Americans contracting the strain and more than 12,000 dying. The CDC reported Friday that 1 of every 13 visits to the doctor last week was for flu-like symptoms, the highest since 2009.

In Tarrant County that year, at least 10 people died and concerns about the swine flu — now known as H1N1 — forced the Fort Worth school district to shut down for 10 days and led to the cancellation of Mayfest.

Staff writer Lee Williams contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press and Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna

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