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Medical professionals gear up for flu season during the COVID-19 era

Experts estimate that every season, 5% to 20 % of the population gets flu or pediatric-related influenza

SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio medical professionals are gearing up and changing protocols as the start of flu season nears.

Dr. Ralph Riviello, chair of emergency medicine at University Hospital and UT Health San Antonio, says the flu season was moderate in 2019-2020, but he and other doctors are expecting the season to be busier than normal this year.

“It wasn’t the worst I had experienced, but we saw a fair number of patients per day in our emergency department with flu-like symptoms,” Riviello said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold throughout the community, he expects staff will be busier than normal testing patients for both seasonal flus and the novel coronavirus at the same time.

“We use a very highly accurate and specific test for the flu here. So I think that little extra weight is worth it to know for sure what you have,” Riviello said. “And we’re also hoping that there is a development of more rapid, accurate COVID-19 testing options.”

Dr. Anita Kurian, assistant director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, agrees that last flu season was relatively mild. One pediatric death was reported in the county. In Texas, there were six pediatric deaths reported in total for the season. Kurian says, in a bad year, those numbers can climb to 10-15 deaths.

“We don’t track every single case of flu that can occur in Bexar County,” Kurian said. “But we estimate that every season we have about 5% to 20% of our population that gets flu and pediatric-related influenza.”

The Center for Disease Control reports there were between 24,000 to 62,000 flu-related deaths in the nations last season.

University Hospital is examining its protocols. This year, patients with respiratory illnesses will be isolated --those with more mild symptoms to those with more severe symptoms -- from the rest of the emergency department.

“Those who are more ill that need things like oxygen and a cardiac monitor and maybe even more care,” Riviello said.

The procedures for individuals with respiratory issues were started during the hospital’s COVID-19 response in March and will continue, Riviello said.

Medical experts across the country and locally are also looking at the flu results from the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season is in full swing. Experts believe that the safety protocols taken for the pandemic are helping to keep flu cases down.

“I’ve read reports out of Australia where they’re undergoing their flu season now, and that was mild compared to other years,” Riviello said. “Also, we’re a little bit hopeful that with the practices we’re doing for COVID-19 prevention, so hand sanitizing and hand hygiene, masking, social distancing -- all of those should help prevent the spread of the flu as well.”

Both Riviello and Kurian urge community members to do their part by getting the flu shot early in the season.


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