Deadly flu season relents heading into March
Flu activity in Texas declined for the third consecutive week in mid-February, according to a new state report, a hopeful sign that this year’s brutal season may be starting to taper off.
The percentage of visits to the doctor for flu-like symptoms dropped from 13 percent to 11 percent for the week ending Feb. 17, said the Texas Department of Health report, which was posted online Friday. Four weeks ago, the figure stood at nearly 15 percent.
“It’s still too early to say the season’s peaked, but flu activity does appear to be coming down,” said health department spokeswoman Lara Anton.
The flu season has raged locally and around the nation for about two months, overloading area emergency departments, hospital rooms and doctor’s offices and killing or contributing to the deaths of more than 4,100 Texans, most of them elderly. This week, local health departments confirmed that two Houston-area children died of complications from the condition.
An unusually bad year
Public health officials say it is one of the worst seasons in a decade.
Anton noted Friday that despite the recent decline, the current level of activity is still higher than at any point the last two seasons. She also noted that flu activity dropped precipitously in early January, only to climb to the season high by the month’s end – evidence that seasons ebb and flow.
Still, the downward trend was consistent with national statistics reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday. CDC officials said the percentage of doctor visits for symptoms of the flu around the country declined from 7.5 percent to 6.4 percent last week, and the number of states reporting high patient traffic for the flu dropped from 43 to 39.
CDC officials, too, were cautious about saying the season has peaked, but called the downturn encouraging.
The national pediatric death toll through last week is now 97, including seven in Texas. That doesn’t include the two in the Houston area, which won’t be reflected in official state and CDC reports until at least next week.
A different kind of strain
The Texas report also shows B strains of the flu, milder, are now dominating activity. Until two weeks ago, the dominant strain was the nasty H3N2 virus, considered the most dangerous and hardest to vaccinate against. The report shows B strains last week comprised 70 percent of specimens testing positive, up from the mid-50s two weeks ago and the 20s through most of January.
But B strains kill too. The Houston boy whose death was confirmed Wednesday had a B virus.
Flu is an underrated killer. The death toll in the United States can range from 12,000 in a mild year to 56,000 in a bad year, and in Texas alone, it contributed to the deaths of more than 9,500 last season and about 8,400 the previous season. Both were considered relatively mild seasons.
Flu season begins in October and can last as late as May. Houston’s typically starts later and becomes most active in January through March.