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Influenza widespread in East Texas, officials warn

By Kelly Gooch, Tyler Morning Telegraph
Jan. 13, 2014 at 11 p.m.

Health officials continue to call influenza widespread in East Texas and encourage residents to get vaccinated.

During December, Good Shepherd Medical Center in Longview administered 2,100 flu tests - 249 of which were positive - and the first week of January, 700 flu tests were administered, said Victoria Ashworth, executive director of marketing and public relations at Good Shepherd.

During a news conference Monday at UT Health Northeast, the Northeast Texas Public Health District, along with other health officials, were on hand to give an update on the flu epidemic and what people can do to prevent the illness.

UT Health Northeast President Dr. Kirk Calhoun said education was the purpose of the event.

"Educating the public is of critical importance - getting people vaccinated, getting folks to understand what they should do if they have symptoms of the flu - are all very important in managing us through this situation," Calhoun said.

Northeast Texas Public Health District CEO George Roberts noted multiple key messages Monday. He said the flu is widespread in East Texas, and those who are older than 6 months of age should get vaccinated. He said medicines such as Tamiflu can act as treatment and are most beneficial when someone first gets the illness. He said they are specifically recommended for people who are seriously ill or have underlying medical conditions.

Additionally, he encouraged people to practice prevention measures, such as hand washing, covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, staying home when sick and not having close contact with those who are sick.

Dr. Paul McGaha, regional director of Texas Department of State Health Services, said H1N1 has been main culprit this season.

It's the same strain that came in 2009, he said, and is covered by the current vaccine.

Generally, McGaha said, the highest rate of flu cases occur in those who are very young, and people who get ill most seriously are those over 65 years old, young children and those with underlying medical conditions. He said that while anybody, including healthy people, can get the flu, this season, young working-age adults have been getting the flu more seriously and at a higher rate.

McGaha said 35 states are reporting that the flu is "widespread," and it is unknown whether the flu epidemic has peaked.

Dr. Jonathan MacClements, of the Smith County Health Authority, said there has been concern about a vaccine shortage, but the vaccine is available through most physicians and pharmacies. Roberts said it is also available through the Northeast Texas Public Health District.

In regard to prevention, he said if someone is running a fever and not feeling well, they should stay at home.

"You bring the virus into the workplace, and you get more people sick with the illness," MacClements said.

He said people can take Tylenol or Advil if they are running a fever but should not take Asprin. Like other health officials, MacClements also advised people to cover sneezes. He said people also shouldn't rub their eyes or mouth after shaking hands.

Dr. Richard Wallace, infectious disease and internal medicine specialist with UT Health Northeast, said the flu is "not like the common cold."

He said the flu is not just upper respiratory but almost always involves the lower respiratory tract, meaning coughing, potentially shortness of breath, potentially pneumonia and potentially death.

He said it also is largely spread via "respiratory droplets."

"So people who sneeze and cough in front of you, you should get real nervous and get your distance," he said.

He said the average person with the flu is sick 10 to 14 days. One of the symptoms is fever, Wallace said, although "manifestations of flu are quite variable."

Wallace said the people with the greatest risk are those with an underlying illness.

As far as therapy, he said medicines for the flu significantly reduce the duration and severity of the illness but must be given within the first 48 hours of onset of symptoms. Otherwise, "the disease has already begun … and you don't change the outcome very much," Wallace said.

In regard to diagnosing the flu, he said a flu virus test is not perfect, and the outcome could depend on how a sample is obtained.

Amy Beasley, director of infection and prevention with Trinity Mother Frances Hospitals and Clinics, reported that during the week of Jan. 5-11, Trinity Mother Frances in Tyler had 25 positive cases for Flu A, while there were 22 in Jacksonville and five in Winnsboro.

East Texas Medical Center spokeswoman Rebecca Berkley said ETMC Tyler, including the emergency room on South Broadway Avenue, had 20 patients come back positive with flu the week of Dec. 8, 46 positive for flu the week of Dec. 15, 59 positive for flu and one positive for H1N1 the week of Dec. 22, 42 positive for flu and one death the week of Dec. 30, 28 positive for flu A the week of Jan. 5 and as of Monday, ETMC Tyler had eight in-house flu patients.

"Usually if a patient has to be admitted, that means their condition is pretty severe and usually has developed other complications such as pneumonia," Berkley said.

She said both of the downtown Tyler hospitals – ETMC and Trinity Mother Frances - and UT Health Northeast have been on divert at times and are working to share resources and patients.

For more information about the flu, visit www.texasflu.org.

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