Local health officials said Tuesday they're going on the offensive, trying to stop a repeat of a deadly flu outbreak that's killed 18 people in the Dallas area.
The rapid spread of the virus in North Texas is part of a larger outbreak taking over 36 states.
Neither City of Houston nor Harris County officials have received reports of anyone dying locally from the flu during the current season.
However, Dr. Brian Reed, Director of Disease Control and Clinical Prevention for Harris County Public Health, says the flu hit the county earlier than usual in September, with a surge of flu-related school absences in December.
“We have sent out notices to our health care partners from the CDC regarding influenza activity, as well as precautions that they should be taking,” said Dr. Reed. “We've also sent out a letter to the school districts, as well as long term care facilities or nursing homes.”
Porfirio Villarreal, Public Information Officer with the Houston Health Department, says kids under 4 are getting hit the hardest.
“It's really important to get your flu shot now,” said Villarreal. “We expect several more weeks of high activity.”
Villarreal says the city keeps close tabs on what's happening at schools, pharmacies, and nearly 40 local hospitals, where he says nearly 13% of ER patients show up for flu-like symptoms. That's about 3,000 cases a week now compared to 2,000 per week when flu season started in October.
“We haven't seen this high level of flu activity in several years,” said Villarreal. “We keep a good sense of what's going on in the community. That's how we track the epidemic.”
Both the city and county are using websites and social media to sound the alarm on the flu outbreak and offer advice on how to prevent it.
Villarreal says public clinics offer the flu vaccine free or at low cost, depending on income, and says there is no shortage of doses. Doctors recommend anyone 6 months or older, especially kids and the elderly, get the shot.
Dr. Reed Despite reports of the current season's vaccine being less effective, it can still make symptoms milder for anyone who contracts the flu.