With weeks to go in a peak influenza season that lasts through February, the flu is bearing down hard on Sacramento County, where public health officials announced Friday that 11 people aged 18 to 64 have died. Last year at this time, the county had reported four deaths.
Usually, flu fatalities are more likely to occur in people over 65 or in young children and babies who are considered the most vulnerable populations, county health officials said.
But the current predominant strain of the flu, H1N1, a version of the virus that sparked a pandemic in 2009, tends to strike even otherwise healthy people who are young or middle-aged adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Statewide, the number of flu deaths reached 45 as of Jan. 11, according to a state tracking system that can run a week behind what counties report. Still the state’s numbers are ahead of last year’s pace of flu fatality reports, state officials said, and they are investigating an additional 50 deaths.
Several counties were reporting more flu deaths than the California Department of Public Health had accounted for, including Sacramento County with six more fatalities than were listed in the state report.
But state officials were not downplaying the surge in flu deaths, which grew by 38 from seven throughout California in just one week.
“This appears to be a season where more deaths are being reported,” said Dr. Gil Chavez, the state’s chief epidemiologist. “What we do know is that H1N1 is the predominant strain circulating, and when H1N1 predominates, there appear to be more fatalities. It is a much more deadly strain.”
A CDC report released Friday said that of the 3,745 patients hospitalized nationwide this season, 61 percent have been aged 18 to 64 years old. “More commonly, most flu hospitalizations occur in people 65 and older,” the report said. “This pattern of more hospitalizations among younger people was also seen during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.”
In Sacramento County, 64 people were battling the virus in hospital intensive care units, officials said. Symptoms of the flu, a respiratory disease, include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and headaches. People who are sick with the flu at home should wait until they have been fever-free for 24 hours before they return to work, said Kate McAuley, the county’s immunization assistance program coordinator.
Sacramento County public health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye noted that, by the end of the 2012-2013 season, 16 county residents had died from the flu, compared with the 11 reported by the county on Friday.
“While the comparison of numbers may appear to provide perspective, the path of influenza is very dynamic and it is very difficult to project – during the season – the total number of people who will ultimately be affected by it,” Kasirye said.
The total number of victims of the flu in California for the entire 2012-2013 season was 106, said state epidemiologist Gil Chavez. “We know we have 45 confirmed and an additional 50 under investigation,” he said. “That’s 95 right there, almost as much as was seen in all of last year.”
Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the state Public Health Department, said, “Flu activity continues to increase statewide, including reports of hospitalizations, severe disease and the number of deaths. We are clearly in the midst of what appears to be an earlier peaking, severe flu season.”
Chapman joined Sacramento County officials in urging people to get immunized against the flu. Although some hospital systems and urgent care centers reported brief shortages of flu vaccines recently, Chapman said there was no shortage of available vaccines.
“It is possible that private health care providers in California may temporarily run out of stock from time to time, but ample supplies of vaccine are still available for order,” Chapman said. “There are also no known widespread shortages of antiviral medication to treat influenza.”
All of the flu vaccines available include components targeting H1N1, as well as two to three other strains. To find a flu shot provider near you, go to flushot.healthmap.org and type in your ZIP code.