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Amid COVID-19, flu may be making a comeback

Dr. Salazar says a flu vaccination remains the best protection against infection or severe illness from the virus.
Dr. Salazar says a flu vaccination remains the best protection against infection or severe illness from the virus.

The COVID masking, social distancing and hand-washing we did last year helped to keep the 2020 flu season quiet. While the CDC says flu activity this year has been low so far, cases still total more than seen last year.

Dr. Gilberto Salazar, an emergency medicine physician with Parkland Hospital and an instructor with UT Southwestern Medical Center, explained to KERA's Sam Baker what he thinks is behind a rise in flu cases.

Why the increase in flu cases in 2021?

In my personal opinion, we are taking a few more risks than we did last year. I see a lot more gatherings, a lot more weddings, a lot more family time.

I think it's necessary to have that type of social interaction. But with that comes the risk of exposing ourselves. If one person shows up sick to your family gathering or to your wedding, you're guaranteed that a couple of people are going to get infected.

Most of the current activity is from the influenza A strain.

Influenza A can lead to more severe disease and other strains. That's been traditionally what's gotten us in trouble before, and that's what's led to significantly higher numbers of influenza in years other than last year. Influenza A continues to be one of our main enemies in terms of virology and emergency medicine and medicine overall.

What’s behind heavy flu activity among kids under five years old?

Number one, we got to remember that the younger we are, the less exposure we have had to certain types of pathogens, such as viruses. And so our immune system is not as robust as it could be when we are that young.

Additionally, kids are more likely to be spending a lot more time with each other and less likely to implement basic public health measures, such as covering their cough, washing their hands, et cetera, and more likely to be congregated in schools and day cares. 

What other particular age groups are more susceptible to flu? 

Patients who have existing respiratory illnesses like asthma, for example, COPD, emphysema. ...Folks who are immunosuppressed as a result of medications they're taking for things like cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, for example.

The rest of the general population will feel pretty miserable if you get one of these strains, but you’re less likely to wind up severely ill. 

Why flu vaccination rates are low nationally and in Dallas County.

I think we have a bit of a short memory as a society, so we're probably saying to ourselves, you know, last year wasn't too bad. They had probably thought this year is not going to be bad enough for you to make an appointment with your primary care physician or your provider and get your influenza vaccine.

We may be downplaying it from that standpoint, but we got to remember that at the end of the day, vaccinations against influenza have been a pillar in keeping us safe as a society from these infections.

Steps to avoid flu

  • Airborne viruses and droplets are the main contributors to transmitting this disease. So if you're feeling sick, do not go around others, especially to gatherings.
  • If you're feeling sick, especially if you live with members of your family who may be more vulnerable to getting sick, please be very careful.
  • Masks prevent the spread of droplets into the environment and aerosolization of these viruses, making transmission much less likely.
  • Washing your hands goes a long, long way in preventing the transmission of these droplets into your environment.
  • And I cannot urge you enough to get vaccinated against influenza because you are much less likely to acquire the infection. And even if you were to get infected, which can happen, you are much less likely to get severely sick. 


Influenza A Strain Is Leading to Rising Flu Cases: What That Means

2020-2021 Texas Influenza Surveillance Activity

Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.