AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you’re coughing or sniffling, you’re not alone. Texas is seeing more flu activity than any other state, according to The Walgreen’s Flu Index.
Health officials are blaming the widespread virus on a weak flu vaccine this year. It’s only effective against about 10 percent of the strains being seen in patients.
Central Texas is no exception to the outbreak. According to Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services, seven people over the age of 50 have died of the flu in Travis County so far this season. In the past couple of flu seasons, health officials had only seen one flu death at this point in the season.
Hays County is also reporting a spike in flu cases this year.
In addition to a flu vaccine lacking effectiveness, Travis County health officials say the H3N2 strain many are coming down with this year is a more dangerous strain than has been seen in years past, causing more severe illness and a higher number of hospitalizations and deaths.
“We’re already sort of where we normally are in peak flu seasons other years,” said Dr. Christopher Ziebell, emergency department director at the Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas.
Ziebell says 10 percent of patients coming in to his ER are being seen for flu-like symptoms.
“It’s been ramping up now for probably the last seven to 10 days,” he said of the virus in Central Texas.
Other emergency rooms and clinics in the area are reporting the same. Community Care Collaborative, which works with Central Health, says flu symptoms have doubled among its patients in the past two weeks. Baylor Scott and White says so far this year, its lab has tested more patients for the virus than they did the entire flu season last year.
Usually flu season doesn’t reach its peak until February.
“With the vaccine being less effective than usual, I’m concerned that this one may hit us hard come February,” Ziebell said.
Dr. Ziebell predicts seeing a surge of flu patients in the coming weeks – more than the hospital is accustomed to treating during average flu seasons.
“We’re preparing for that,” he said. “We know what our overflow plans are, and we know how to staff up if we need to and we’re leveraging our other hospitals when this particular hospital gets full.”
Doctors are stressing good hygiene, telling people to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer several times a day. They’re also encouraging anyone who comes down with the virus to help prevent it from spreading.
“Don’t try to tough it out,” Ziebell said. “Don’t be a trooper who goes to work anyway. That’s a great way to spread it. It’s much better to stay home until the fever’s been gone for at least a day.”
And for anyone who hasn’t received a flu shot yet this year, the ER director says it’s still a good idea, despite it only fighting off a tenth of this season’s strains.
“Get your flu shot anyway, because that still reduces your risk of getting the flu by 10 percent, which can be the difference between life and death for some people,” he said, adding, “There is some cross immunity, so if you’re in the 90 percent of strains that the vaccine is not perfect for, there might still be some cross immunity there, which means that you might get the flu, but you might get it less severe for a shorter length of time.”