DALLAS –– Not since the swine flu epidemic of 2008 have emergency rooms seen as many influenza patients as they have so far this year, hospital officials say.
Nationwide, 16 pediatric influenza deaths have been reported.
Not yet included in that tally is the death of 17-year-old Max Schwolert of Flower Mound. Schwolert died after a case of influenza progressed into a staph pneumonia.
It's "definitely associated with the flu," says Dr. Matt Bush, emergency room physician at Medical City Dallas Hospital, of the connection between staph and flu."And one of the more common reasons that a healthy person would die from the flu."
Bush says the influenza virus weakens the immune system in some people so that staphylococcus bacteria that exists naturally in the nose and mouth can more easily travel to the lungs and set up a deadly infection there.
Bush says no one knows who will be susceptible, but there are signs a routine flu case is taking a turn for the worse.
"If you have shortness of breath," says Bush. "You really shouldn't feel winded, like you've just gone out and exercised. If you're vomiting that's persistent and won't go away. Or if you're weak and lethargic."
Medical City is among several hospitals that have quit testing for flu in most cases because the virus is so widespread. Some facilities have run out of flu tests because of the high demand.
North Texas is seeing all strains of flu. According to the Dallas County Department of Health and Human Services, 51 percent of the cases are A strain while 49 percent are type B. The CDC confirms that about a third of the type B strain going around isn't covered by the traditional flu shot. But the vaccine does cover most of the circulating strains, however.
According to the CDC, Influenza Type A is found in humans, pigs, birds, horses and other animals –– especially wild birds. Influenza Type B is found solely in humans.
"The flu vaccine is matched with the A and B strain we're seeing," says health department director Zachary Thompson. "It is not too late for a flu shot."
Influenza vaccination can take up to two weeks to offer full protection. But, in North Texas, influenza usually doesn't peak until early February, health experts say.
Dallas County still has some free doses available for adults. There is also a large quantity of free children's flu vaccine for under-insured Dallas County residents. Area pharmacies and doctor's offices also have vaccine in stock.