New public health plea: Get a flu shot

As the average number of cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed in Jefferson County each day stabilizes, public health experts have diverted some of their focus to addressing potential problems created by the intermingling of influenza and COVID-19 even before they begin.

While it’s relatively easy to predict who is most at risk of severe flu complications, a bad flu year could stress hospital capacity needed to treat the most dire cases of it and coronavirus.

At the same time, people are spending more time inside, which experts across the country worry will again result in an uptick in cases of the coronavirus and, as a result, hospitalized individuals.

So, in an attempt to protect health-care capacity in advance of any potential onslaught, public health experts are urging nearly all residents to take the flu vaccine even more seriously this year.

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“The CDC is encouraging everyone that can get a flu shot to take it this year,” Port Arthur Public Health Director Judith Smith said.

Because some flu and COVID-19 symptoms are similar, she added, taking steps to prevent individuals from contracting the flu ultimately could help a more timely diagnosis.

“We also don’t really know what having COVID and flu will look like,” Smith said. “That could be very devastating, so we want people to take heed.”

Flu season generally runs from October to May, with a peak usually from December to February. Flu vaccinations typically take about two weeks to become effective.

Smith said her public health department is planning to use its experience running COVID-19 drive-thru clinics the past few months to host several drive-thru flu vaccination clinics.

“Usually we do one or two, but we’re going to try to do more this year to keep more people from coming into the health department and serve the community better,” she said. “But right now, most of our immunizations are still on an appointment system.”

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Port Arthur also recently inked a deal with Gulf Coast Health Center to continue city-sponsored COVID-19 testing without requiring the state to come in each time.

“Because we still have community spread, it’s going to be necessary to have these clinics,” Smith said, adding that the city does have at least one more mass testing site planned this month. After that, the city will use federal funding to cover the cost of coronavirus testing at the clinic.

“We’re going to work together with them to see how the process will go so people can get tested whether there’s a mass test site or not.”

It’s unclear when that program will start, but Smith said such testing needs to continue until an increased testing doesn’t cause a corresponding increase in confirmed cases.

While the average number of coronavirus cases confirmed in Jefferson County is nowhere near the mid-July high, it has more than tripled since falling to fewer than 10 cases confirmed across the county each day in late August.

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As of Thursday, the latest day with complete stats, an average of 30 coronavirus cases were being confirmed each day. Using the rolling seven-day average number of cases presents a picture of confirmations that largely levels surges that can be linked to mass testing sites.

At a state testing clinic run in Beaumont last week, more than 43 people showed up the first day, to the alarm of Mayor Becky Ames.

“I thought that was pretty high in the situation we’re in now where some people have been tested multiple times and there are so many places to get tested,” she said.

That total slowed down as the week continued with only a handful of people showing the rest of the days.

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“If people have symptoms, I assume they’ll go,” she said. “So, I feel pretty good that it slowed down after the first day.”

While local leaders closely watch the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases for indicators that the health-care system could again be stressed, the percentage of coronavirus patients compared to overall hospital populations has stayed below the 15% threshold for Texas set by Gov. Greg Abbott last month.

Should a county rise above that number, it will be expected to again limit capacity at certain businesses.

As of Thursday, nearly 11.5% of patients at Jefferson County hospitals were at least suspected to have COVID-19. It’s unclear if Abbott’s threshold could change should the region experience a particularly intense flu season.

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