Flu exposure breeds a level of natural immunity, creating a cellular memory of prior infections in those it infects. The absence of influenza last year, due to widespread masking and social distancing, has left many with a weakened immune defense — a development that could spell trouble as Texans venture out in droves this fall.
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The return of the familiar body aching, fever-inducing wintertime scourge could not arrive at a worse time. Hospitals are still reeling from the fourth surge of COVID-19 spurred by the highly contagious delta variant and stagnating vaccination rates.
Experts predict flu season could hit Houston by early November.
“Now is the time to start making flu vaccine appointments,” Piedra said.
At Houston’s four city-run health clinics, the push for seasonal flu protection has already started. On Monday, nurses doled out their first doses of the flu vaccine to walk-in patients, which are free to anyone who lacks insurance. Uninsured children are also eligible for free shots through a statewide program that has already begun distributing doses.
H. Omar Salgado, vaccination chief for the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, said the health clinics are administering flu vaccines at the same time as COVID vaccines. Same-day shots have earned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s stamp of approval and are considered safe.
“We do both simultaneously,” Salgado said.
Retailers like CVS and Walgreens are offering walk-in flu shots ahead of the expected winter flu surge. Walmart offers same-day appointments.
It’s unclear, however, whether the push for flu inoculation will get lost in the deluge of public health messaging and pandemic fatigue. Flu vaccination rates have never been high among adults: Just one-third of Houston adults between the ages of 18 and 64 got the jab during the 2019 season, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Among school-aged children — the engines of viral spread — the rate hovered around 60 percent.
There is already some indication that flu season is back in full force. Flu cases in the Southern Hemisphere are surging, though they remain below pre-pandemic levels, according to the World Health Organization. Influenza viruses circulate all over the globe and kill an average of half a million people each year.
But this year’s flu vaccine may be less well-matched to counter the circulating strains.
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Each year, scientists monitor influenza viruses globally in order to predict dangerous mutations. They then alter vaccine formulas to counteract the most virulent strains. Without a flu season last year, virologists were left guessing about which strains might be most prevalent this year, said Dr. Wesley Long, Houston Methodist’s medical director of diagnostic microbiology.
Nationwide, flu hospitalization rates last year dropped to the lowest levels on record. Just three patients tested positive for influenza at Memorial Hermann during the 2020 flu season, down from nearly 1,000 the previous year.aside">
“It’s harder to tell what is going to happen,” Long said.
What is clear, he said, is that the same interventions that stall the spread of COVID — indoor masking, social distancing and early detection — are time-tested for the prevention of flu transmission.
The uptick in flu, common colds and other respiratory pathogens is likely to be most concerning in schools, where officials are “letting down their guard on masking and social distancing,” said Dr. Hana M. El Sahly, a virologist and microbiologist at
While schools are typically prime transmission zones, they don’t need to be, she said. Unlike the COVID vaccine, which is not yet available for young children, the flu vaccine is approved for kids 6 months and up.
“There may be heavy flu activity coming,” El Sahly said. “We have to be ready for it.”
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