HOUSTON – At least one of the eight patients being treated for a mysterious illness at Conroe Regional Medical Center has tested positive for H1N1, according to Montgomery County health officials.
It's the same strain of H1N1 that caused a pandemic in 2009. Doctors have been seeing hundreds of new cases recently in Texas and nationwide. In fact, H1N1 is one of the viruses included in this year's flu shot.
The patient diagnosed with H1N1 is still alive. Two other surviving Conroe patients tested negative for H1N1. The results are still pending for one patient.
"So what we're doing now is we're retesting those patients who tested negative from the private lab," Montgomery County Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott said. "And those samples will be sent to the state and the CDC for confirmation testing."
The illnesses started with flu-like symptoms, then progressed to pneumonia and, in some cases, organ failure. They all initially tested negative for the flu.
It’s been busy at the Conroe Urgent Care Clinic. Some 18 patients came in with flu-like symptoms. Physician Assistant Derrick Goodwill says on a daily basis, “We’re testing at least 5–7 people positive for H1N1 as opposed to October when we hardly had any.”
The commonly used RAPID flu test is not very reliable.
“The recommendation right now is to give Tamiflu to patients even if they don’t test positive,” Goodwill said.
That is also why Montgomery County health officials now plan to use a more reliable but costly and time consuming test on those patients sick from the ‘mystery’ bug and those who died from it.
"Right now in Houston, there are two outbreaks of respiratory illness and both can cause death," said Dr. Pedro Piedra, an internationally known flu researcher at Baylor College of Medicine.
One of those illnesses is the flu. The other is flu-like.
"Deaths will always occur with influenza. Sometimes more and sometimes less," Dr. Piedra said.
Just because adults test negative for the flu, doesn't mean they don't have it.
"You can have influenza infection and not be able to detect it," Dr. Piedra explained. "Our rapid test that we use to say whether it is flu or RSV is not so good in adults."
That’s because adults normally have lower levels of the virus even when they are sick.
The lack of answers has the public worried.
"Wow, that is scary," said Janelle Cude, who lives in Conroe.
"I think that there is something going on that they are not telling people," said Laura Bentoe, also a Conroe resident.
Montgomery County health officials will only tell us the victims are between the ages of 41 and 62.
"I just wonder if they are related, do they work together? What do they have in common? They haven’t mentioned any of that," Bentoe asked.
Health officials can’t answer those questions because they are barred by federal health privacy laws.