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University Health System Gears up for a Bad Flu Season

A steady rise in cases is hitting young and middle-aged adults hard

Concerned that a fast-rising number of flu cases could signal a bad flu season, University Health System is urging people to get vaccinated and is developing contingency plans in case the season gets worse.

Bexar County, like the rest of Texas, is experiencing high levels of flu-like illness, according to state and local health departments. And although doctors and clinics aren’t required under the law to report individual flu cases, those health departments rely on a network of sentinels sites and a few comprehensive virology labs such as the one at University Hospital to track the severity of the flu season.

In the last week of December, the Health System saw a higher one-week volume of lab- confirmed flu than it saw during any week in the previous two flu seasons, with plenty of patients with flu-like illness seeking relief at University Hospital’s Emergency Department and its five ExpressMed urgent care centers.

During the last week in December, 94 cases of flu were confirmed by University Health System’s laboratory — almost half of them ages 18 to 49. That’s up from 76 cases the previous week, 39 cases the week before that, and 9 cases in the week ending Dec. 7.

Six of the 94 flu patients last week were also infected with a second respiratory virus at the same time. Five of them had both flu and rhinovirus, and one — a 1 year-old child — had flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

“Influenza is unpredictable and can be a very serious illness, one that hospitalized approximately 380,000 Americans last year and kills an estimated 23,600 annually in the United States,” said Dr. Bryan Alsip, executive vice president and chief medical officer of University Health System. “The volume of flu cases that we’re seeing in our hospital and clinics in the past couple of weeks has become concerning. The single best way to prevent influenza is to get a flu vaccine each season, and I would encourage anyone over 6 months of age who hasn’t yet gotten the flu vaccine to do so.”

Should flu cases increase, officials plan to redirect those with flu-like symptoms from University Hospital’s Emergency Department to a temporary clinic nearby, to avoid overcrowding in the ED and to prevent patients who aren’t sick with flu from being infected. A similar flu clinic was set up at the hospital in 2009 during the pandemic A/H1N1 influenza epidemic.

While experts don’t expect this flu season to be as severe as it was then, the same strain is circulating again this season. And as it did in 2009, the strain is causing severe illness in young and middle-age adults, more so than in the elderly.

This year’s flu vaccine — the best way to prevent getting the flu — covers the strain and is still widely available. The CDC recommends that anyone 6 months of age or older should be vaccinated against flu.

For most people, flu is the most serious of the seasonal respiratory viruses that circulate this time of year. Symptoms can include fever, muscle ache, fatigue, a runny or stuffy nose and cough.

Besides the vaccine, other strategies to keep from getting or spreading the flu are:

  • Stay home when sick to avoid spreading illness to others. DO NOT visit people in the hospital if you have flulike symptoms.
  • Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or a tissue, and properly dispose of used tissues.
  • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water or use an alcohol- based hand sanitizer.
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