Big-city hospitals in Texas have been overwhelmed this week by an influx of flu patients, and state health officials say influenza activity is widespread across the state.
At Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, waiting rooms turned into exam areas as a medical tent was built in order to deal with the surge of patients. A Houston doctor said local hospital beds were at capacity, telling flu sufferers they might be better off staying at home. Austin's emergency rooms have also seen an influx of flu patients.
But high emergency room volumes and filled hospital beds are "not uncommon" for this point during flu season, which runs from October to May, said Lara Anton of the Texas Department of State Health Services.
"We definitely know it's widespread," Anton said this week. "We have been at widespread for the past three weeks." But she added that it's too early in the season to know whether this year's flu impact is extraordinary.
On Monday alone, Parkland's emergency department had seen 930 patients — double what the hospital typically sees for people with flu symptoms by this time of year, Dr. Joseph Chang, associate chief medical officer for Parkland, told CBS11.
Across town on Sunday, Methodist Dallas Medical Center rerouted non-emergency ambulance patients to different area facilities in order to take care of “emergency patients like trauma, stroke, and sexual assault" due to the lack of bed availability from flu patients. The hospital said the move was consistent with state and federal laws, The Dallas Morning News reported.
The Houston and Austin areas are also seeing high volumes of patients. In Houston, area hospitals have filled up, including Texas Children’s Hospital, where a quarter of patients are being treated for the flu. Austin doctors have reported high volumes of patients in emergency rooms, and “the number of visits at health care systems, physician offices and urgent care centers over the past week has really exploded,” Dr. Ken Mitchell of St. David’s Healthcare told KXAN.
As of Thursday, no Texas hospitals had requested state help to deal with flu activity, Anton said.
According to the department’s weekly influenza service report, there were high levels of influenza and influenza-like illness in Texas during the last week of 2017. Texas is one of 26 states reporting high flu activity, said the CDC.
Walgreens’ flu index reports that Texas cities hold 9 out of 10 spots on the nationwide list of "Top 10 Designated Market Areas with Flu Activity." The flu activity is tracked by retail prescription data used to treat the flu from nationwide Walgreens.
People usually have some immunity to seasonal flu from either previous exposure or flu vaccinations, according to the CDC.
Anton encouraged people to get flu shots if they haven’t already and, if infected, to stay home and be aware.
Dr. David Lakey, chairman of the Texas Medical Association Council on Science and Public Health, said the flu can put even the healthiest person in bed for a few days. Babies, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases should take special approaches to avoiding and dealing with the flu and should see their primary care provider for antiviral medication if they are ill, he said.
"For those individuals, the symptoms can progress pretty fast,” Lakey said.
The strain of the flu spreading around Texas is called ‘H3N2’, and Lakey said the flu vaccine is usually less effective on this particular strain — but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t get a flu shot.
“The flu vaccine isn't perfect, but it’s our best tool,” Lakey said. “If you haven’t been immunized, there’s still a vaccine available, and go ahead and get immunized.”
Disclosure: The Texas Hospital Association, Parkland Health and Hospital System and the Texas Medical Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.