Health & Medicine

California flu deaths up despite fewer infections. Watch for signs you need a doctor

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is classifying this flu season as low in severity, California medical providers have reported more deaths related to influenza during this flu season than they did for the comparable period a year ago.

No one really knows why flu-related deaths can be higher during seasons of low flu activity, said Dr. Nichole Braxley, the medical director for the emergency room at Mercy San Juan Medical Center, but the statistical contrast has sparked conversations among physicians at her hospital. Overall, she said, she’s just not seeing as many people coming into her ER with flu-related symptoms as she did last year.

Braxley said: “By Jan. 16, 2018, we’d had like 156 flu admissions and on Jan. 16 one year later we had 37. It was a third to a quarter of the admissions due to flu. This is a relatively mild season. The strain in the vaccine seems to be much more effective. This year, there is just a higher percentage of deaths.”

The flu death toll rose to 207 in California during the week ending Feb. 9, according to the latest report from the state Department of Public Health. In the same period a year ago, the number of flu-related deaths stood at 185.

Last season’s death toll did not rise to 207 until the week ending Feb. 24. However, there have been more flu outbreaks so far this season, 38 versus 29 a year ago.

Last year’s flu season was considered one of the worst in 10 years. Roughly 329 death certificates listed flu as the cause of death in the season ending Aug. 18. Public health officials say the actual number of deaths related to influenza is far greater than what is reported.

How bad is flu activity in the Sacramento region? The mobile app rates local residents’ risk of getting the flu as medium, using an algorithm that looks at social media reports as well as other flu indicators. Another app,, shows the severity level as light to medium around most ZIP codes in the region.

Flu appears to have peaked in the Sacramento Valley on Christmas Day when roughly 5.1 percent of the population experienced symptoms, according to Kinsa, a company that uses smart thermometers and Bluetooth technology to track fever around the nation. Flu activity at that time was 6.8 percent above the same period a year ago.

Data from Kinsa’s users also show they are getting more short-duration colds than long-duration flu. That doesn’t mean the region won’t see another outbreak of the flu. In fact, the Kinsa team said they saw a brief spike in influenza-like illness around Jan. 24 when 5 percent of the population between Sacramento and Modesto experienced influenza-like illness.

Nationally, Kinsa spokesperson Kimberly Angell said, levels of cold and flu peaked last week, surpassing the high from last season by 10 percent. Texas and Louisiana are still the sickest areas in the country, with fever-related illnesses infecting more than 8 percent of people in those states. But in Midwest states, where schools closed as a result of harsh winter weather related to the polar vortex, residents are enjoying rates of flu and cold below the national average, Angell said.

The CDC and other public health agencies state in their public announcements that getting the flu vaccine now can still be effective in preventing the illness. This is particularly important, Braxley said, for individuals in high risk groups such as the elderly; young children; pregnant women; and individuals who have heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or other chronic conditions.

She also recommends washing your hands frequently and putting on a cotton mask when in close contact with other people.

“If you feel yourself getting sick,” she said, “go back to the basics: Baby yourself. Make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids. Take ibuprofen or Tylenol for body aches or fever. Get some extra sleep. Stay home. Do all the things to take care of your body and try to prevent it from getting worse.”

Most people will recover from the flu after a few days without getting a special medication like Tamiflu, Braxley said, but if your fever persists beyond five days and you feel short of breath, an infection may have settled into your lungs, causing pneumonia.

Be smart, Braxley said. If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, she said, that’s not normal, so seek help from your doctor, urgent care or an emergency room.

People always wonder, she said, when to come to the emergency room. If you can’t get into your doctor but are having prolonged symptoms of fever, vomiting, diarrhea for example, go in for an evaluation, Braxley said.

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Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.