HARLINGEN — Nasty flu bugs are making one final assault before season’s end.

“This was a positive for flu B,” said Myrna Stockton, supervisor at the Valley Baptist Medical Center lab, which had just run another test sent from the emergency room.

“We had three Bs this morning,” she said with frustration.

The flu seems intent on wreaking havoc on doctors and hospitals across the country, with a sharp increase of infections for this time of year.

“There has been an increase in the number of hospitalizations,” said Dr. Jose Campo Maldonado, chair of the Valley Baptist antibiotic stewardship committee.

He didn’t know the exact numbers off-hand, but … “There are patients who stay longer in the emergency room because we don’t have enough rooms.”

It’s the same story in many parts of the country, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A surveillance map reveals high flu rates in such disparate locations as Oklahoma, Oregon and New York City. Texas shows this same trend, says Dr. Christopher Romero, internal medicine specialist at Valley Baptist.

“According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, influenza activity is high and widespread,” Romero said. “We are experiencing the same situation here in the Rio Grande Valley. This season over half of the tests for influenza have come back positive at Texas Public Health Laboratories.”

Romero said the rate of patients seeing their doctors with flu-like symptoms is higher than the three previous flu seasons.

“Multiple hospitals in our region have been at capacity recently and the flu is a contributing factor,” he said.

Why?

Several reasons, actually.

“Every year there is a different combination of influenza viruses active in the community causing the flu,” Romero said. “The viruses are different each year and some cause more severe disease than others.”

He said some patients may have been exposed to a flu strain to which they have no immunity. There are two main types of influenza, A & B. Last flu season, he explained, more than 90 percent of flu cases were caused by Influenza A. This season, Influenza B has caused almost 60 percent of flu cases.

“Influenza B virus has been associated with more severe disease in previous seasons, especially in children,” Romero said. “The primary Influenza A type in circulation this season is also known to cause severe illness, especially in those that have not been exposed to it previously. While the primary strains in circulation this season are not brand new, the virus causing the majority of illness is different than last season.”

Maldonado revealed that sometimes, as vaccinations are formulated according to the most virulent strains, there could sometimes be a mismatch. In other words, perhaps the patient is exposed to a strain that was not figured into the formulation of the vaccine. However, that doesn’t mean people should not receive vaccinations.

“The vaccine is not perfect but even if you still get the flu, having had the vaccine, you may get a less severe illness,” he said. “Everybody over six months should get the vaccine.”

With or without the vaccine, people can take steps to avoid infection, and if they are sick, to keep from spreading it.

“If you’re sick, avoid large public places,” he said. “You can cover your mouth, cover your nose, you can avoid touching your face. Wash your hands, have good hand hygiene. Do cough etiquette, use a mask.”

Other precautions include staying current with medications, getting plenty of rest and maintaining healthy eating habits.

While the rate is high, the spike seems to be slowing down, Maldonado said.

“In Texas, there was a percentage decrease from last week to this week,” he said. “But still there’s been very high activity the last four to five weeks.”

Meanwhile, flu cases continue to inundate the lab at Valley Baptist.

“If we have a patient with flu-like symptoms in the ER, they will swab the nose and send it to the lab to get tested,” Stockton said. “It takes about 15 minutes.”

The lab had just received another swab …

HOW TO AVOID CONTRACTING FLU

• Get a flu vaccine

• Avoid sick people

• Wash hands frequently

• Stay current with all medications

• Get plenty of rest

• Maintain healthy eating habits

WHAT TO DO IF FLU-LIKE SYMPTOMS OCCUR

• Patients can take antiviral medications to treat the flu.

• Those who have pre-existing health problems such as COPD should seek immediate medical attention if they experience flu-like symptoms.

• Avoid contact with others if you think you may have the flu.

• Cover your mouth and nose with a mask.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention