AUSTIN (KXAN) — This year’s flu season is expected to hit harder than previous years, and Austin ISD confirmed the virus is already in area schools.

Alana Bejarano, AISD’s director of health services, said the district lacks exact numbers for the flu, as guardians don’t always provide the schools with diagnosis information.

“We’ve only had a couple confirmed because parents bring us a doctor’s diagnosis. We try to tease out the data as much as we can, but I don’t have definitive figures on how many actual cases of flu we have,” Bejarano said.

Bejaramo said AISD works closely with Austin Public Health during the flu season and the two agencies conference weekly. Prior to the current flu season, APH studied trends in the southern hemisphere’s flu season.

“We are seeing a surge in influenza cases that we haven’t seen in several years,” said APH medical director Dr. Desmar Walkes. “In the southern hemisphere, they saw really high numbers of flu cases and hospitalizations, particularly a lot of cases in the younger pediatric age group. We typically are a mirror image of what has happened there. Their season started earlier, and that’s what happened here.”

Walkes said APH recorded flu cases in August, earlier than usual. There has also been an increase in positive cases from 11% to 33% over a single week.

Winnie Whitaker, medical director for the emergency department at Dell Children’s Medical Center, concurred with the City of Austin’s estimations of the season.

“We’re not testing every child who comes into the emergency room for flu. A lot of them have flu-like symptoms, but we aren’t exactly sure whether it is influenza or whether it’s another similar respiratory virus,” Whitaker said. “But we’re definitely above baseline for these types of illnesses for the first time in a really long time. In fact, for the first time since the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic.”

How to avoid the flu

Bejarano recommended parents get vaccinated and get their children vaccinated, and Walkes and Whitaker agreed.

“It’s time to get vaccinated for the flu, to protect yourself so that you don’t become ill,” Walkes said. “We really want to impress upon people the importance of covering coughs and sneezes and wearing a mask if you’re indoors with poor ventilation, especially if you’re with several people who have the flu or flu-like symptoms.”

The flu vaccine can take two weeks before it takes full effect. Even then, it is still possible to catch the flu; however, the vaccine is effective at preventing hospitalization from the flu.

“The vaccine should do a lot to protect people. If you should get sick and you’re vaccinated, the vaccine will protect you from severe illness and keep you out of the hospital, out of ICU. It’s still a very important tool in protecting you from severe illness,” Walkes said.

“It’s normal to feel a little bit ill a couple of days after you get a vaccine. Some achiness, low-grade fevers, headaches, things like that are pretty common,” Whitaker said.

Hand washing remains an important tool against the flu.

“This is an old school method, but teach them to sing the ‘Happy Birthday Song’ or any song that is at least 30 seconds to a minute long for timing hand washing. Front and back, in between the fingers, really show them what it takes to wash their hands,” Bejarano said, “These are things that we were taught as kiddos, and they are still approved to prevent illness.”

Precautions used against COVID-19, such as masks, can also help reduce transmission.

COVID-19 is also still spreading in the Austin area at a low rate. Cases of another virus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), are also appearing in schools. That virus is common in young children during colder weather. All three viruses spread through close contact, surfaces and airborne droplets (such as from a cough).

Treating a sick child

According to Whitaker, most children recover quickly from the flu with the help of rest, fluids and medication (she recommends ibuprofen or acetaminophen).

“Most children will have a pretty limited course. And as long as they are staying hydrated and are feeling well with fever-reducing medications, they do not need to go to the emergency department and can be cared for pretty safely at home,” Whitaker said.

Symptoms of worsening flu:

  • Child is not improving after their fever is controlled,
  • Lethargy,
  • Body aches or leg pain causing difficulty walking or
  • Severe respiratory symptoms, such as breathing really fast or hard.

“That’s the time you want to either call your doctor for advice or think about being seen either at the doctor’s office or an urgent care,” Whitaker said. “In the most extreme cases, the emergency department.”

Keeping symptomatic students home from school is a critical step, Bejarano said.

“I understand the need for parents to work and have their kids in school. But if they’re ill with fever, headaches, stomach ache [and/or] cold symptoms, keep them at home,” Bejarano said. “We’re asking parents to not return students to school until they’ve been 24 hours without medication and fever free. We’re trying to keep them at home during that symptomatic phase.”