A virulent strain of influenza continues to spread across Calaveras County and the rest of California and the nation this week. Local health officials warn that the worst is yet to come.
“It’s shaping up to be a very severe flu season,” said Calaveras County Health Officer Dr. Dean Kelaita.
The latest mutation of influenza A, known as H3N2, appears to be particularly harmful, even deadly.
“Influenza is smart,” Kelaita said. “It mutates in response to people’s immune systems. The proteins on the surface of the virus are what your immune system recognizes. As it changes, it tricks the immune system to not recognize it, and that’s what is called a ‘novel’ strain. You won’t have any immunity to it, and that’s why people need a flu shot every year, because the virus is constantly changing.”
“We’re seeing the same activity now at the beginning of the season as we were at the peak last year,” Kelaita said. “It’s starting to involve the foothills, and some things are telling us that activity is up. Reports of people being hospitalized for the flu are going up. Each week the hospital’s emergency department will record numbers of influenza-like illness, or ‘ILIs’ and those are starting to go up above normal. We can track the activity for a season, then we compile the data, but we won’t know that until it’s over. Each year we put together a report. The end of the season is April or May, and then we release the report at the end of year. It’s important to know who is at risk. Pregnant women, kids under 2 and people over 65 are more vulnerable, as are those with lung disease or heart problems. The single most important way to prevent it is to get a shot. There are also simple activities like handwashing and staying home when you’re sick.”
“Twelve percent of our students are out in the entire district,” said Carol Belot, nurse for the Mark Twain Union Elementary School District. “That’s an unusual number. It stands out. We’re sending several students home every day and we’re trying to be proactive. We’re wiping down our desks daily. Good handwashing is the most important thing.”
The latest California Department of Public Health influenza report described flu activity across the state as “widespread” and “elevated.” The department also reported 32 flu-related deaths of patients under the age of 65 between Jan. 7 and 13 in the state. The total number of deaths for the 2017-18 flu season is 74.
“If you’re talking about protection and issues about how you try to keep your loved ones as healthy as possible, the No. 1 is still getting the flu vaccine,” said Dr. Randy Bergen, a pediatrician and the clinical lead of Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Flu Vaccine Program. “Some protection is better than no protection.”
The risks in Calaveras County and the rest of California are no different than the rest of the country. Officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently hosted a media call addressing this flu season. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, CDC director and Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC’s flu division, fielded questions from several national media outlets.
“We are currently in the midst of a very active flu season, with much of the country experiencing widespread and intense flu activity,” Fitzgerald said during the call. “So far this season, influenza A, H3N2, has been the most common form of influenza. These viruses are often linked to more severe illness, especially among children and people ages 65 and older. When H3 viruses are predominant, we tend to have a worse flu season with more hospitalizations and more deaths. Nationally, the flu season may be peaking now, but we know from past experience that it will take many more weeks for flu activity to truly slow down. We also continue to recommend the flu vaccine. While our flu vaccines are far from perfect, they are the best way to prevent getting sick from the flu and it is not too late to get one.”
“I think the simplest way to describe it is that flu is everywhere in the U.S. right now,” Jernigan said. “There’s lots of flu in lots of places. Our team has been doing this for 13 years and this is the first year we had the entire continental U.S. be the same color on (our) graph, meaning there’s widespread activity in all of the continental U.S. at this point. It is in a lot of places and causing a lot of flu. There’s been a very rapid increase in the numbers of people coming in to see their doctors or health care providers. The season has started early and it’s probably peaking right about now.
“If we were to compare this to that kind of activity that occurred in the past, it’s looking a lot like the activity from 2014-2015 and from 2012-2013. (For) both of those seasons, the strain H3N2 was predominant, a strain that is associated with more cases, more hospitalizations and more deaths. Finally, in terms of the hospitalizations, (it’s) almost doubling in terms of the numbers, just in the last week. The people that we see affected with H3N2, that is the very young, the very old and those with underlying conditions.
“We’re sad to report this week that there are an additional seven flu-associated pediatric deaths, bringing the number of pediatric deaths reported so far to CDC to 20. It’s just a reminder that flu, while causing mild disease in a lot of people, can also cause severe disease and death in others.
“In the past, if you look at seasons like this one that we’re having, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of influenza to go. In addition, there are other strains of the flu that still show up to be a major cause of disease and, therefore, a good reason to get vaccinated if you have not.”
Calaveras County residents can get a flu shot at the Public Health department, 700 Mountain Ranch Road, Suite C-2, San Andreas, on Mondays from 3 to 5:30 p.m. and Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. They cost $26. Officials urge residents to contact their health care providers, physicians’ offices, clinic or pharmacy about flu shot availability. Locations where flu shots are available can also be found at vaccinefinder.org.