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Epidemiologist: Flu season off to ‘really early’ start

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Flu season is off to an early start this year.

An increase in influenza activity is trending up nationwide with southeastern and south-central areas of the U.S. reporting the highest level of disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hays County isn’t immune to influenza’s early start this year.

“We’re just seeing [influenza] start really early,” Hays County Epidemiologist Juli Barksdale told the Daily Record. “One thing the [COVID-19] pandemic did was just kind of disrupt normal patterns of disease. So a lot of times we don’t really know. Hopefully things will settle down in a year, two years. But, yes, just very unusual patterns right now. Right now, we’re seeing flu just pretty high and pretty early.”

Approximately 12.8% of clinical tests return positive for flu in the U.S. over the last week and 5.5% of visits to a health care provider were caused by respiratory illness, according to the CDC. Nearly 6,500 Americans were hospitalized by influenza over the past week, CDC data stated.

Barksdale said keeping a track of the flu is difficult in Texas as it isn’t a disease required to be reported to the state. She said the Hays County Local Health Department is trying to survey the flu through voluntary reporting by 25 different facilities, including some schools, daycares and primary care facilities throughout the county.

“We’re not trying to catch every case right now,” Barksdale said. “Right now, we’re just looking for trends. We’re trying to see where and when it’s spreading. So, just by that, we can say, ‘Oh, look it’s going up a lot.’ But we don’t really know exactly how much. We’re just doing our best with it. It’s gone up a lot.”

Barksdale added that the data available shows that there’s a higher level of respiratory illnesses than expected for this time of the year.

“Those numbers are really high,” she said. “And, the hospitals are pretty full with pediatric patients right now.”

To try and slow the influenza’s spread, Barksdale said the same measures taken against COVID-19 will work.

“Everything that works for covid, works even better for flu,” Barksdale said. “So, you know, we had more people wearing masks so there was less flu and people are not wearing masks right now and there’s more flu. I know it’s a touch point with most people, but it really does help a lot. [Flu] is a respiratory illness.”

Barksdale said she’d also like to see an emphasis on cleaner indoor air.

“Right now, it’s just the norm to clean our water,” Barksdale said. “We do not ask everyone to boil their water every day. We just expect what comes out of our faucet is clean. But we have almost no indoor air-quality standards. We have more outdoor air-quality standards than indoor, which is interesting, and we spend about 90% of our lives inside. So, this is  what the next focus needs to be. We need to have more ventilation, open windows. Not just that but your HVAC system, you can change it where it’s pulling in 50% fresh air, you can make it where it’s pulling in 100% fresh air, which is not as energy efficient but it’s much healthier.”

Barksdale also stressed the importance of getting the flu vaccine this year.

“Texas, overall, we are at a much lower vaccination rate than we were this time last year,” Barksdale said. “And, we’re much, much lower than we were two years ago. So, that’s part of why it’s spreading because people are not getting vaccinated. Everyone 6 months and up should get vaccinated. It does work. Vaccines are one of the safest and most natural medical interventions … People are sort of scared of vaccines when they really shouldn’t be because it really is taking a natural process that your body is already doing when it’s exposed to just normal things every single day and we’re using a natural process.”

Although influenza cases are higher than normal at this time, Barksdale said current trends aren’t an indicator of how flu season will go.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire season is going to be terrible,” Barksdale said. “It might just mean it’s peaking early. No one has a crystal ball. So, we don’t really know. The best thing to do is try to protect yourself.”

San Marcos Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666