Flu blues: Cameron, Hidalgo health departments raise awareness

BROWNSVILLE — Rio Grande Valley residents have been experiencing triple-digit temperatures during the winter holidays, but not from atmospheric conditions.

Like much of the country, hundreds of people here are under the weather and suffering from feverish flu or flu-like conditions.

Starting in December, health officials in Cameron and Hidalgo counties reported seeing a spike in the number of flu cases originating in hospitals and in nursing homes.

“Our numbers have gone up drastically,” Cameron County Health Administrator Esmerelda Guajardo said. “In the last week of December and the first week of January, there was a little bit over 400 cases for Cameron County.”

Last year, during the first week of January, Guajardo said there were only approximately 75 cases. And for all of last year, Cameron County logged around 2,000 cases of the flu, she said.

“The people that do report to us are hospitals and nursing homes,” Guajardo said. “Obviously, they have higher risk individuals.”

Hidalgo County Health and Human Services Department Chief Administrator Eduardo Olivarez said his office also has noticed an increase in influenza or influenza-like requests for assistance in emergency rooms.

“And we’ve been seeing that really since Dec. 22. We started seeing what we call a creep,” he said. “There was upward mobility since Thanksgiving, but we saw a spike around the 22nd.”

Hidalgo County’s health department doesn’t track day-to-day numbers on influenza, he said, explaining that it only tracks fatalities of children who die from influenza. So far, none have.

“Hidalgo County has the majority of hospital beds in the Valley,” Olivarez said. “And this time of the year, Hidalgo County is always busy.”

In fact, it was so busy during the holidays that emergency rooms in Hidalgo County were filling up and patients were being diverted for treatment.

“We’ve got a situation where we are full and the majority of the cases are flu or flu-like illnesses,” Olivarez said. “Things have stabilized. That happened right around Christmas.”

Situations like the one during the holidays in Hidalgo County, however, are preventable.

“People need to, one, go get prevention shots,” Olivarez said. “No. 2, if they are starting to feel sick, go to the doctor right away and deal with it.”

However, most able-bodied residents shouldn’t fear losing their life over the flu.

The area of concern expressed by health administrators in the Rio Grande Valley include very young infants, the elderly, people who have immune system illnesses, those with advanced diabetes or advanced heart problems, people who have had organ transplants recently or folks suffering from advanced medical complications.

“Between 23,000 and 25,000 people die per year from influenza-related medical complications, not necessarily from the flu directly,” Olivarez said. “Very few people die from the flu directly.”

Guajardo and Olivarez recommended that people practice basic hygiene habits to protect themselves.

“Cover your mouth when you cough. Wash your hands,” Guajardo said. “People overlook the simple things like getting rid of a toothbrush if you are sick and washing your bedding.”

There are still flu vaccines available in both Cameron and Hidalgo counties.