County health officials warn flu cases and deaths in state are higher than usual

County public health officials said even though they prepared for flu season early, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths throughout state are higher than normal, and they cannot predict when season will end.

San Benito County Health and Human Services (HHSA) reported at the Feb. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting that the county has experienced increased influenza activity and trends as predicted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

According to the CDC in California and throughout the U.S., influenza activity has increased significantly over recent weeks with influenza (H3N2) viruses predominating so far this season. CDPH surveillance data sources for the 2017–2018 influenza season indicate influenza activity is widespread throughout California and is trending up earlier than in the 2016–2017 season.

Kevin Ahern, a public health nurse and immunization coordinator, told the supervisors the 2017-18 flu season has been more severe than previous seasons. He said this season is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic in which an estimated 500 million people, or one third of the world’s population at that time, were infected.

“The number of deaths were at least 50 million worldwide,” he said, “with about 675 thousand deaths in the United States. Mortality was highest among people younger than five years old, 20 to 45 years old and over 65 years old.”

Influenza epidemic in 1918 was one of the most serious ever.

Ahern said the current influenza outbreak is showing similar patterns. He said the CDC is using the historical perspective in order to “leverage the lessons of the past to prepare for today’s challenges.”

Mary White, a pharmacist with the Emergency Preparedness and Communicable Disease Program, added that understanding seasonal patterns and how viruses work guides Public Health efforts to develop prevention strategies long before flu seasons begin.

“The challenge with influenza is that from year to year we don’t know exactly when flu season will begin or how severe it will be,” she said. “Flu season can begin as soon as September and stretch into May. This unpredictability is due to the nature of the flu virus and the community immunity status.”

She said plans for promoting the upcoming Fall vaccine clinic began last Spring. Based on information from the CDC, the CDPH, and the World Health Organization, she said this year’s flu season was predicted to be early and severe.

“Public Health decided to conduct our annual community flu vaccination clinic earlier than in past seasons, as soon as we could be assured of having an adequate supply of vaccine from the state,” she said. “Therefore, we were able to hold the clinic a month earlier, in October rather than in November.”

White said planning and executing the county-wide flu clinic is a major endeavor that involves setting up a mass immunization clinic, working with Gavilan Community College to enlist student nurses, recruiting volunteer registered nurses and other personnel, obtaining and transporting vaccines under temperature-controlled conditions.

“We conducted the clinic on Oct. 26 and vaccinated 595 people in a five-hour period,” she said. “On Dec. 27, during the holiday closure, Public Health staff were notified by a local skilled nursing facility of several flu cases. We quickly recognized this was a flu outbreak. Our Public Health team responded immediately. We began a communicable disease investigation and worked with our Hazel Hawkins Hospital, skilled nursing facility, and pharmacy partners. We insured a timely and appropriate antiviral treatment and prophylaxis to over 100 patients in a 24-hour period.”

She said at the same time the Hazel Hawkins ER was reporting a higher than usual number of patients with influenza, which was similar to what was happening throughout California.

“Unfortunately, last month we received notice of two San Benito County resident deaths due to influenza,” she said.

She went on to tell the board that HHSA participated in all emergency flu teleconferences with the CDPH. Public Health, she said, continues to send public updates to healthcare providers and the public that include recommendations on how people can protect themselves against the flu.

“We did this through BenitoLink, the Free Lance, local school websites and social media,” she said.

Ahern said the walk-in clinic is open weekdays, except for Tuesday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. until vaccine supplies are exhausted. He said CDPH has assured all public health departments that there is a sufficient supply of vaccine and antiviral remain available throughout the state.

“While there are hints that the flu season may have peaked, state epidemiologists warn that the numbers of recorded flu cases, hospitalizations and deaths are still higher than usual, and they cannot predict when flu activity will subside,” Ahern said. “The state recommends that we continue all prevention efforts, including vaccinations and timely antiviral treatments. We encourage all residents to get their flu shots. It’s not too late. Public Health provides free vaccinations to all individuals six months and older at 439 Fourth Street, while supplies last.”

Jim Rydingsword, director of HHSA, commented that as he goes around the community he often hears people say they got their flu shot, but then they got the flu anyway.

“One of the things people need to understand is because you get the flu shot and because there are three strains out there doesn’t necessarily protect you against the flu, but it does, according to Dr. [Gail] Newell [Public Health Officer], decrease the impact that it has on you.”

To date, CDC reports that influenza is wide-spread in every state, except Oregon and Hawaii. It has also spread to Puerto Rico. While only two county residents have died from flu complications, as of Feb. 5, 53 children across the county have died from the flu.

The CDC said the nationwide flu outbreak that has hospitalized 14,676 people since October, is showing no sign of easing up as at least four more deaths have been reported in the past few days, including three children, according to ABC News.

"We have not hit our peak yet, unfortunately," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in the ABC story. "Really, the bottom line is, there is still likely many more weeks to go."

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]