A sign points towards the immunization clinic at the Metro Health Building.
A sign points towards Metro Health's immunization clinic. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio hospitals, urgent-care clinics, and other health care providers are reporting a dramatic influx of patients with flu-related symptoms, with Bexar County flu rates registering above the state average for the last five weeks, health officials said Friday.

The state’s latest report on influenza activity released Friday found that 542 flu-related deaths were counted since the previous reporting week, bringing the total number of deaths in Texas during the current flu season up to 2,897. In Bexar County, 395 people have died since the flu season officially began Oct. 1.

San Antonio Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger told the Rivard Report that in the week ending Jan. 27, the number of patients presenting with flu-like symptoms at area health care facilities increased 13 percent over the previous week.

Bridger said that the with the current increase, local flu rates are likely “more significant than the state overall rates.”

University Health System facilities reported seeing record-breaking numbers of patients being screened for respiratory illnesses. Don Finley, director of external communications, said that during the week ending Jan. 27, 905 patients presented with flu-like symptoms, breaking the hospital system’s previous record set only three weeks earlier.

The onslaught of patients has prompted the county-supported health system to attempt to safeguard its flu diagnostic supplies.

“[We] are asking providers to be conservative in ordering both flu and respiratory tests because of the volumes of patients we’re seeing and a national shortage of flu reagents and collection tubes and swabs,” Finley said.

During the week of Jan. 27, University Health System saw 208 lab-confirmed Type A flu strains and 129 cases of Type B – the highest number of lab-confirmed Type B cases in any single week on record. “These are flu numbers we haven’t seen since the swine flu pandemic in 2009,” Finley said.

Lara Anton, spokeswoman for the Department of State Health Services (DSHS), said that the largest number of flu-related deaths have occurred among people 65 and older. In Texas, nearly 62 percent of total flu-related deaths have occurred within this population.

The second-largest group of people dying from flu-related complications are in the 50-64 age group. Typically, children under 5 are the second-largest age group for flu-related deaths, but this year they are the third-largest group.

At the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, physicians  saw nearly 10 times the number of flu cases in January, 1,134, than they did in January 2017, when they saw 107 cases, according to Susanna Hernandez, CHRISTUS Santa Rosa’s director of infection control and prevention.

Remains were found by construction workers at the Children's Hospital.
The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

Within their adult-care facilities, Hernandez said, the hospital’s flu cases will be at least double compared to last season.

Baptist Health System said that in December, pulmonary and respiratory admissions due to the flu were up 24 percent compared to December2016. Communications Director Patti Tanner said that while their January data is not  final, she expects the numbers to be sharply higher than the year before.

San Antonio Medical Associates, one of the 10 primary care clinics within the Nix Health system, is seeing as many as six patients per provider per day, which Dr. Manuel Vogt said is a significant increase from last season. He said that while the majority of patients have tested positive for the flu using rapid testing, health care providers also treat patients for flu symptoms such as high fever, night sweats, fatigue, or chills, even if patient has not been diagnosed with flu.

“We have had a handful [of people] with classic [flu] symptoms that have [tested] negative and we treat,” Vogt said. “We also treat household members prophylactically if a patient tests positive.”

According to estimates from the CDC, the flu kills about 12,000 U.S. residents in a mildly severe flu season, and 56,000 in a moderately severe flu season. The current flu season is considered moderately severe. There were 9,553 flu-related deaths in Texas last flu season.

“It is still too early in the flu season to know how it will stack up against other flu seasons – there are many weeks left in the more active part of the season and we can’t predict how it will go,” Anton said.

One of the first signs of the flu is a fever, chills, or body aches. This is sometimes followed by cough, sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, headaches or fatigue. Some people may develop diarrhea or vomiting, but this is more common in young children.

Texas residents can receive free flu shots at San Antonio Metropolitan Health‘s immunization clinic at 1226 N.W. 18th St. while vaccine supplies last. The clinic is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., while vaccine supplies last.

“Our doctors continue to advise people to get a flu shot if they haven’t yet, even though it’s not a perfect match to the predominant A-H3N2 strain this year,” Finley said.” Even though it doesn’t work as well, the flu shot will lessen that flu strain’s severity and perhaps keep people out of the hospital.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.