The staff at Project Vida Health Center have been taking waves of flu patients and haven’t been able to come up for air.
Bill Schlesinger, CEO for the community health center in El Paso, said the flu has caused a “significant take down” of his own staff members, with between 20 and 30 percent of them getting the flu even after being vaccinated. They’ve had to fill in where they can with people covering shifts, working longer hours and not taking time off.
“Remember the videos of the tsunami in Japan and it just kept coming? It was just like that,” Schlesinger said.
Health providers across Texas have been battling a severe flu season that is sending thousands of patients to doctors' offices and hospital emergency rooms. More than 4,000 Texans have died so far from flu-related illnesses this season, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Texas is one of 43 states reporting high flu activity, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walgreens’ flu index reports that four Texas cities — Dallas, El Paso, Tyler and Waco — are among the top 10 spots on the nationwide list of areas with the highest flu activity. The list is created using retail prescription data about flu medication bought from nationwide Walgreens.
It's hard to know at this point how the season compares to previous years because the season can peak anywhere between December and March, said Lara Anton, a press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Last year 9,553 Texans died from flu-related illnesses.
“We don’t know if this season has peaked yet,” Anton said. “We've had the number of visits to doctors go down for the past two weeks so it’s looking like maybe it’s starting to go down but we need a few weeks to know for sure.”
When Keisha Whitman saw the rise in the number of flu tests and emergency room visits for Cuero Regional Hospital in December and January, she was surprised.
As the infection control nurse at Cuero Regional, 90 miles east of San Antonio, Whitman runs the surveillance reports that get sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services. She’s been with the hospital for nearly 18 years and says she “can honestly say this is probably the worst year that we’ve had statistic-wise for sure.”
The hospital’s emergency room and five affiliate clinics have been slammed with patients. Doctors and nurses are donning masks to cover their mouths to try and avoid catching and spreading germs. Whitman said there’s been concern about the number of people who need to be hospitalized.
“Sometimes people don’t want to wait or just can’t wait,” Whitman said. “I think because clinics have been so terribly busy and people may call and try to schedule a visit, their recourse is coming to the emergency room.”
Part of the reason this flu season has impacted more people than usual is that the vaccine hasn’t fought the H3N2 strain well. But though the vaccine for this season’s flu strain has not been effective, state and federal health experts are still urging people to get their flu shots.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data last week showing 84 children nationwide have died from the flu this season. Federal officials have pointed out that three out of four of the children who died did not get their flu shot. The vaccine has provided 59 percent protection against this year’s flu strain in children ages 8 and younger.
Dr. Dennis Conrad, president of the Texas Pediatric Society, said young children are highly susceptible to being exposed to the flu and should be immunized. He said vaccines are the best form of prevention and protection during flu season and that even if patients get the flu after the shot, it will likely be a milder case.
“Many people claim that the only time they ever got the flu is when they got the flu shot and that’s not true,” Conrad said. “The shot itself is incapable of causing the disease, that’s why it’s been perpetuated by people who want a convenient excuse to not be immunized.”
The unpredictability of the flu is why Dr. David Lakey, chief medical officer for The University of Texas System, says he takes it seriously every year.
Part of the issue is “people forget how bad the flu is,” particularly for children, older adults, people living with chronic health issues and pregnant women, Lakey said. He said he is optimistic that this flu season will go away in the next month but people should still call their primary care doctors to make an appointment if they're sick, get vaccinated, stay home if they’re sick, cover their mouths when coughing and wash their hands.
“All of us are waiting for the next big pandemic of influenza, and I think that’s where this season needs to be eye opening,” Lakey said. “There wasn’t a good match between the virus and the vaccine and even with this bad seasonal influenza, we had emergency rooms backed up and hospitals on diversion, which continues to reinforce in me that if a real pandemic occurs, it will be severe on the health system.”
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