A concerning rise in flu and COVID-19 cases is being reported across Texas just as families prepare to gather for the holidays. Multiple regions are seeing upticks in hospitalizations and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions, sparking fears that holiday travel and celebrations could further fuel viral spread.
Flu Positivity Rates Climb
According to a report by KIII-TV, flu positivity rates have jumped sixfold over the past month in parts of South Texas. The predominating flu strain this season is influenza A H3N2, which tends to cause more severe illness in young children and seniors.
“We are concerned that we’re going to have a very active flu season on top of surges of other respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Janelle Ayala, an infectious disease specialist with Texas Children’s Hospital and Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center.
Statewide flu activity is considered “high” and above peak levels from previous seasons. Health experts say fewer pandemic precautions, waning immunity, and vaccine mismatch likely explain the unseasonable flu wave.
“Families battle illnesses during holidays: Spike in flu cases reported,” San Antonio Express-News
Multiple Viruses Circulating
Flu is not the only virus circulating at elevated levels. Cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 are also spiking, creating a “perfect storm” of contagious illnesses.
“We are seeing really high numbers that we would normally see in January or February,” said Dr. James Versalovic, interim pediatrician-in-chief at Texas Children’s Hospital.
The early and rapid spread of these viruses is putting young patients particularly at risk. Texas Children’s Hospital has opened overflow units to accommodate the surge.
Versalovic and other health experts worry holiday gatherings could hasten viral transmission and spark even larger outbreaks in the weeks ahead. They advise getting vaccinated, wearing masks indoors, and staying home when sick.
Wastewater Signals Looming COVID Wave
In addition to rising cases, wastewater analysis suggests COVID-19 infections may spike further in the near future.
“Central Texas battles a trio of respiratory viruses as holidays approach; wastewater signals COVID spike,” Austin American-Statesman
SARS-CoV-2 levels in Austin-area sewage have climbed 60% over the past month. A new Omicron subvariant, XBB.1.5, is suspected to be driving growth. Early estimates indicate this strain could be the most transmissible yet.
Low Flu Vaccine Uptake Concerning
Another worrying trend is low influenza vaccine uptake compared to previous years. According to Texas health authorities, less than a third of adults have gotten the flu shot thus far.
Rates are even lower among children, with just 22% vaccinated. Low pediatric flu vaccination is compounding pressures on children’s hospitals already operating over capacity.
Health experts widely agree that expanded flu vaccination is critical to reduce strain on healthcare systems.
“No seriously, it’s time to get your flu shot in North Texas before the holidays,” said Dr. Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
|% Adults Vaccinated by Dec 1st
“It’s important not to get complacent about flu shots just because COVID is still circulating,” said Cervantes. “Both these viruses can spread quickly and cause severe outcomes when people gather.”
New COVID Variant Emerges
As flu and COVID hospitalizations rise, Texas officials are monitoring a new Omicron offshoot nicknamed the “Kraken.”
Classified as XBB.1.5, the variant was first detected in El Paso last week and makes up an estimated 40% of cases there. So far fewer than 100 total cases have been confirmed statewide.
Early analysis suggests XBB.1.5 is the most evasive Omicron mutation yet in terms of immune escape. The strain appears capable of dodging antibodies from both vaccination and previous infection.
Luckily, XBB.1.5 does not seem to cause more severe illness compared to BA.5 and other Omicron predecessors. But its supercharged transmissibility remains concerning to public health experts.
Bracing for Post-Holiday Surge
With flu, RSV, and COVID all circulating at high levels, Texas hospitals are steeling themselves for patient surges when families reconvene after the holidays.
Pediatric facilities in particular are bracing for an influx of viral illnesses. Emergency resources are being marshalled proactively to handle the anticipated uptick in children requiring intensive care support.
In the meantime, physicians strongly advise getting vaccinated, wearing quality masks in crowded settings, and staying vigilant for symptoms. Boosters shots are recommended for added protection given immunity declines over time.
By taking prudent precautions, we can help flatten infection curves and prevent Texas medical systems from buckling under the triple threat of flu, RSV, and COVID this holiday season.
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