During COVID-19 pandemic don’t forget about the flu, says a Texas family

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COLLYVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — Joe Lastinger understands the toll of COVID-19 on families. 
He just hopes the flu won’t be an additional strain. 

Emily Lastinger died from the flu before the vaccine was recommended for children. (Courtesy: Joe Lastinger)
Emily Lastinger died from the flu before the vaccine was recommended for children. (Courtesy: Joe Lastinger)

“You can’t fix all the COVID risk right now, right, because you know, kids under 12 can’t be vaccinated. But one thing you can do as a parent is you can take flu out of the equation, and just take one… possible complication out of your lives,” explained Lastinger.

He helped create Families Fighting Flu, which advocates for flu education and prevention. The nonprofit includes families from around the country like the Lastingers.

They lost their 3-year-old daughter, Emily, to the flu in 2004. They explained it was before flu shots were recommended for babies six months and older. 

“She was a healthy, beautiful little girl,” said Lastinger. “She wasn’t vaccinated. And she, from the time that she got ill with influenza, it was about a week before she passed away suddenly at home.”

Emily would have been 21 years old now. 

Concerning flu season

Her father said since her death, a lot of advocacy and education about the flu has saved lives. 

“What I’m really worried about, though, is last year, we were, because of masking, and because of all the social distancing, we had an unparalleled moderate flu season,” he said. “Now our kids are back at school. They’re not social distancing. And you know, my concern is to make sure that in all the news and all the stuff going on that we don’t forget to remind parents to make sure that their kids are vaccinated and themselves.”

As COVID-19 cases surge across the state, some pediatricians are also worried about the upcoming flu season. 

“There’s a lot of reasons to be concerned. You know, we’ve seen that how everybody got hit so hard again with RSV over the summer,” said pediatrician Dr. Seth Kaplan. “We’ve got a couple years of kids now that have no natural protection from flu, because we basically got to almost two years where there just hasn’t been a lot of influenza, and that can potentially set up the conditions for a very, very difficult flu season, making it even more important for everybody to get vaccinated.”

Hays County flu shots_635561

Dr. Kaplan is the president of the Texas Pediatric Society, which is the chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and recommends kids get their flu shots as soon as possible. 

“We know from years past that children have protection that lasts throughout the season from flu vaccine, even if they get it this early, whereas older adults, their protection may wane as the season goes on,” Dr. Kaplan explained. “But for kids, there’s no reason not to get their flu vaccine once it’s available. And of course, you know, the makeup of the flu vaccine changes every year, because the strains that circulate change, and even though there hasn’t been much flu, there’s been ongoing surveillance around the world of what flu there was. And so this year’s vaccine is a little bit different than last year’s vaccine.”

Flu deaths across Texas

The Texas Department of State Health Services only tracks pediatric flu-related deaths. Flu seasons run from the beginning of October and can last until late September.

“Data for the last two years look very different because of our efforts to mitigate COVID-19,” said Lara Anton, senior press officer with DSHS. According to state data so far, no pediatric flu deaths were reported this flu season.

Anton explained more flu-related deaths may get reported before the end of the season, and death data can lag by as much as six weeks at times.

There were 20 pediatric flu deaths in the 2019-20 flu season, but Anton said those number were also impacted after schools shut down in mid-March last year. State numbers said 17 deaths were reported in the 2018-19 flu season.

DSHS does not track the number of children who received flu shots.

KXAN investigators checked with several pharmacies and doctor offices in Central Texas and found a number already have flu shots in stock. 

COVID-19 vaccination rates

Dr. Kaplan explained anyone can get the COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot at the same time if eligible.

“They can be given at the same time if you haven’t had the COVID vaccine yet, which we hope everybody who’s eligible does as soon as possible if they haven’t already. The current guidelines suggest that they can be given at the same time and can be given whether you’ve been vaccinated or not for COVID,” he said. 

As for the booster, the guidelines are still being developed and should be out soon.

He said analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed 53% of 12 to 17 year olds in Texas have had at least one dose, and 42% are fully vaccinated.

He said there’s still hesitation, and he’s continuing to talk to families concerned.

“Right now one of the largest populations of children in the hospital with COVID are unvaccinated teens who are eligible to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Kaplan. “And when you know, so you know that you took that simple step of getting your teen vaccinated, and it reduces their risk of hospitalization or serious illness by a huge amount.”

Dr. Kaplan is hopeful the vaccine will be approved for younger kids as early as this month or it could be as late as January depending on the data. 

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