More people ditching ER, choosing urgent care or pharmacies during one of worst flu seasons on record

HOUSTON -- Flu season is now in full swing and apparently this year, it's hit much earlier and much worse than expected.

Dr. Zeeshan Shaikh has been practicing at Southwest Urgent and Family Care for five years. He said this is the worst flu season he's ever seen and blames it on a number of different reasons.

"It's already three to four times the normal flu season. It usually doesn't start until mid-January, but this year, we started seeing cases around November. First, we had Harvey and water is standing in different places and people are displaced. The second is the weather change. We were expecting a bit of a spike. But the third, which is the most important, is the flu vaccine. I think the flu vaccine is working on less than 10% of the population," Shaikh said. "Usually what happens with influenza is it keeps changing its RNN and DNN, so it's modifying themselves and that's why we're not getting a good strain target."

With such a high spike in the number of cases, emergency centers are apparently over capacity, forcing people to seek treatment from urgent care facilities or pharmacies, instead. But Shaikh said that, in itself, is a problem.

"I tried to send a few patients to the hospital and they told me there were long waiting times, more than 12-15 hours in the big hospitals, so they were ending up in urgent care. But honestly speaking, if they had developed pneumonia or serious complication, we cannot manage it in urgent care," Shaikh explained.

It doesn't stop there.

Shaikh said some pharmacies actually ran out of Tamiflu over the holidays-- the only treatment that seems to work so far. And the price tag? Well, that's another issue.

"We serve a lot of low income patients in this area. Our clinic charges $40 per visit. So they're paying $40 to see the doctor, then Tamiflu costs about $160 to $180. So how many people can afford it? Most of them end up just getting treated just for the symptomatic issues," Shaikh said.

If you start experiencing any flu-like symptoms like fever, cough, runny nose or body aches, see a doctor immediately.

In the mean time, avoid contact with anyone who might have the flu and brace yourself because we've still got another two to three months of flu season to get through.