Just three weeks ago, influenza infections at University Health were averaging about 40 cases a week. Two weeks ago, they jumped to about 120 cases; last week, the average rose to 217.
It’s alarming, said Dr. Jason Bowling, an epidemiologist at University Health, how early flu cases are peaking, considering the season just began this month.
“Into December, beginning of January, that’s when we usually see our peak of flu transmission,” Bowling said. “In October, we [usually] see very low levels. To see these numbers this early in October, we’re definitely going to see more flu.”
While most of the country is seeing minimal to low numbers of flu cases, as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are registering high in Texas.
As cases rise across the state, San Antonians should not only prepare for the flu but also an increase in COVID-19 cases as winter approaches, health experts warn.
Bowling recommended staying up-to-date with flu shots and said those experiencing upper respiratory infection symptoms should stay home or wear a mask in public to avoid transmission.
Right now, Bexar County is in a “good spot” when it comes to COVID-19 cases, he said. Only 5% of COVID tests at the hospital are coming back positive. San Antonio’s COVID-19 dashboard reflects an improving, low risk level for the coronavirus.
But in the coming weeks, COVID-19 cases could start rising in the U.S., as they are in Europe already — the U.S. tends to follow its COVID-19 trends by about six weeks, experts say. That’s why they’re urging people to get the bivalent COVID-19 booster, which protects against both the original and omicron strains of COVID-19.
According to the city’s dashboard, nearly three-quarters of Bexar County residents over 6 months old is fully vaccinated, but only about 40% of those over the age of 5 have gotten a booster.
“We will continue promoting the importance of receiving the COVID-19 and flu vaccines to prevent illnesses during this season,” said David Alegria, public relations manager for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. “Since updated COVID-19 booster shots are now authorized for children over the age of 5, we will continue ramping up our promotional tactics.”
Metro Health still has approximately 4,500 $100 H-E-B gift cards to give to anyone who receives a COVID vaccine or booster at one of the agency’s pop-up clinics.
Bowling said children may not be at risk of severe disease or death if infected, but adults older than 50, especially over 65, are, he said.
“Kids may not get as sick but that makes them even better, more efficient transmitters of disease to their older family members,” he said. “Getting kids vaccinated, you really can help provide a buffer protection there, too.”
On Oct. 11, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha urged Americans get vaccinated before Halloween for the greatest protection.
“Don’t wait,” he said. “Get your new flu shot and get your new COVID shot today. If Americans did that, we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter.”
He added that people who feel any cold symptoms should get tested.
“We know testing leads to a diagnosis, diagnosis leads to treatments. And treatments that we have available today for free keep people out of the hospital, keep people out of the ICU, prevent the worst outcome of all,” he said.
In San Antonio, anyone eligible to receive a COVID shot or booster can go to a pharmacy or find Metro Health community vaccination events at the locator online.
University Health pharmacies also offer the bivalent booster for those 12 and up, no appointment necessary and free of charge. Appointments are required for the vaccine for children from six months to under 5.
Bowling said he hopes more people will get boosted.
“Adults who are 50 and older, and especially 65 and older,” he said, “because they’re really going to be at high risk for more severe disease, hospitalizations, deaths.”