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While health officials monitor COVID trends and probable cases of West Nile virus, they are also anticipating another scourge: flu season, which typically begins in October.


Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott is concerned that, in conjunction with COVID, flu season could force schools, which are scheduled to begin in-person classes in early September, into a cycle of closures. Last year, Travis County schools reported an increased number of absences among students and teachers related to flu outbreaks.

It could also spell trouble for area hospitals, which have only very recently moved out of a surge stance. "If we combine an increase of flu cases and COVID-19, we are definitely going to overwhelm all of our systems," APH Director Stephanie Hayden said earlier this month.

There is precedent for this. In 2009, during the H1N1 flu outbreak, a summer wave was followed by a downturn this time of year, Austin Public Health Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said. "Then when school restarted, we saw an increased spike in cases and a second wave that exceeded the [first] wave," she added.

But in the face of these two terrors there is hope: the flu vaccine, which is now available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people get vaccinated in September and October, ahead of peak season, which is typically between December and February.

"The fall comes very quickly, and we do need to think about influenza vaccination at this time," said Dr. Pedro Piedra, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine.

A common goal

Like COVID-19, the flu is a contagious respiratory disease that can cause symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and headache; strikes nursing homes; and is especially dangerous for older patients and those with other health issues.

COVID-era precautions appear to be helping contain the spread of the flu—at least for now. The World Health Organization reported Aug. 3 that globally influenza activity is lower than expected for this time of year. But Piedra still recommends that people get vaccinated. "A second respiratory virus in a person who has already been sick from one doesn't recuperate well," Piedra said. "The influenza vaccination provides security, a safety net."

Typically, around 50% of Americans get vaccinated against the flu each year, with higher rates of participation among children under five and older adults. Common barriers are affordability, not having a regular doctor and unfounded myths about vaccines, Piedra explained.

The goal, however, is universal immunization—in the range of 80% to 90%. "So we can do a much better job," he said.

Innovation at home

The upcoming flu season also raises questions about how to determine between the disease and COVID.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering are working to develop a dual-sensor antibody test that can detect whether a patient is sick with the flu or the coronavirus based on a saliva sample. Professor Deji Akinwande and his team recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation for their work.

"This is something you might purchase in advance, have it at home and once you develop symptoms you quickly test, and it tells you within minutes," postdoctoral fellow Dmitry Kireev told Austonia.

Such a test could help people determine whether they even need to see a doctor and how careful they should be around others, ideally reducing the burden on the healthcare system and reducing disease transmission in the community.

The team has developed a prototype and is now working to determine the accuracy of such a test. If their experiments are successful, they will seek to produce the test at scale later this year.

"The winter comes, maybe not to Texas, but there's still a winter, and people get sick," Kireev said.

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‘Like speed dating of cats’ at Purr-fecto Cat Lounge
Purr-fecto Cat Lounge

Lina Martinez with her newly adopted cat, Emmanuel, who she renamed Sullivan.

Timmy and Tommy are ready to play.

As the 2-month-old white-and-tabby brothers swat feather wands, chase toys and generally hold court inside Purr-fecto Cat Lounge, a half-dozen potential adoptive parents look on lovingly, trying to get their attention.

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Foster, who has owned a cleaning company, Enviromaids, for 18 years, was inspired to open Purr-fecto Cat Lounge after adopting her own cat, Romeo, from a local shelter.

“When you want to adopt a cat, you have to spend a lot of time with them to get their personality,” Foster said. “I wanted to do something to help the community and something that makes me feel good, that warms my heart. A business with a purpose. This was a perfect idea.”

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Inspired in part by a cat lounge she visited in Los Angeles, Foster began laying the groundwork for the business in late 2021 and officially opened the doors of Purr-fecto Cat Lounge, located at 2300 S. Lamar Blvd., in July 2022. Since then, she’s worked with rescue organizations such as Fuzzy Texan Animal Rescue and Sunshine Fund Cat Rescue to facilitate nearly 100 cat adoptions.

At any given time, there are 10-15 cats living in the space, which features an ideal blend of calm, cool corners and adorably Instagrammable backdrops with phrases such as “I want to spend all my 9 lives with you.”

Lina Martinez, 32, learned about Purr-fecto Cat Lounge from a friend’s Instagram post and made an appointment to visit two days later.

“My first impression was, ‘AWW!’” Martinez said. “The kittens were to die for. I felt happy and at peace – just what I needed.”

Visitors to the cat lounge pay $15 for a 30-minute CATXperience session or $30 for a 70-minute session that is spent getting to know the personalities of each cat. Foster said the first thing she typically sees from visitors to the lounge is a smile.

“Everybody that enters the door is smiling,” she said. “And we’ve seen people who have cried because they can’t have kids and they decide to go and adopt a cat instead.”

Foster said she loves bringing in cats who might not have a chance to be adopted at traditional shelters. She told the story of one cat named Izzy, who was partially blind, who was adopted by a family that had a deaf cat at home.

“Izzy was not going to get adopted anywhere else, but she’s extremely beautiful,” she said. “If she was in a cage in a rescue and you tell people she’s blind, she was probably going to be overlooked. But visiting our space, she doesn’t seem like she’s blind. She knows her way around. She moves around perfectly.”

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And she, of course, got him, complete with a commemorative photo that read “My Furrever Family” the day she took him home. Although his original name was Emmanuel, she renamed him Sullivan after her favorite DJ.

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Foster, who spent a recent Thursday hosting a group of teenagers in foster care at the lounge, several of whom expressed interest in working there, said the best part about her new endeavor is that her heart is always full.

“I just feel complete,” she said. “I always felt as an entrepreneur that I was missing something. I knew I accomplished a lot, but in my heart I was missing a little connection with the community. Now I’m creating connections between humans and pets and that’s amazing. I’m creating family bonds. It’s just about love, you know. And we need that.”