How infectious will this year’s flu be? Local disease experts weigh in

Simple Health

AUSTIN (KXAN) — This summer, the state of Texas saw an unusual surge in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, which typically emerges in the winter and affects young children and older, higher-risk adults.

This comes on the heels of heightened COVID-19 transmission rates and the return of in-person schooling for children. For Dr. Lizbeth Cahuayme-Zuniga, an infectious disease specialist with Baylor Scott & White Health, she said this could be a prelude of what’s to come in the 2021-22 flu season.

“There is a concern,” she said. “We don’t know what could exactly happen in the future, but the reality is that we are seeing some sporadic cases of the flu. So there is a concern that there may be more cases as those [safety] measures aren’t being used.”

Texas’s flu season usually begins in early October and runs through May, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Peak flu season activity is typically found between December and February, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the 2020-21 season, Texas DSHS reported dramatically fewer confirmed cases of the flu than seasons past. The highest weekly positivity rate — or rate of confirmed positive tests out of the total number of tests done — documented during the season was listed as 1.33%.

For comparison: During the 2019-20 season, January 2020 had the season’s highest weekly positivity rate, with 41.75% of tests conducted that week coming back positive.

Cahuayme-Zuniga credits the use of masks and social distancing practices for decreased cases last season. But with the return to in-person school, work and social gatherings, this season could see a dramatic return to higher transmission rates and, potentially, more severe cases in higher-risk populations.

“It’s a preventable infection,” she said. “It can cause severe disease, it can cause that and it is preventable.”

Similar to COVID-19 safety measures, vaccinations, washing hands, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing are all ways to help prevent the flu’s spread. Following updated guidance from the CDC, people can also receive their flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time without any documented health risks.

As hospital systems near or supersede capacities, now is as important a time as ever to get your flu shot, Cahuayme-Zuniga said.

“Our hospitals are overwhelmed. Our beds are full, and we wanted to prevent that more patients come to the hospital,” she said. “So please, please get your vaccine, get your COVID-19 vaccine if you haven’t, and please be ready to receive your flu shot as soon as it’s available.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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