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Amid a bad flu season, Sonoma County public health officials urge people to get vaccinated

The Press Democrat - 1/10/2020

Jan. 10--The influenza virus is spreading its miserable, achy maladies far and wide, leading public health officials to warn the flu season could be a bad one and remind people to get vaccinated.

Sonoma County Public Health Officer Celeste Philip said local tests show about half of patients with flu-like symptoms actually have the virus, which is a higher percentage than the same time last year when positive tests peaked around 40%. Those test results are a key benchmark that health providers use to gauge the severity of the flu season, Philip said.

Although a significant number of people are getting the flu amid what is likely the heart of the flu season, the afflicted aren't being hospitalized at high rates -- a trend reflected in local, state and national data.

"People aren't quite as severely ill," said Dr. Gary Green, an infectious disease specialist and medical director of quality at Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods based in Santa Rosa. "There are not as many cases in the hospital, but a lot more cases in the clinics."

An exception are the number of flu-related deaths among children. So far this flu season, 27 people younger than 18 have died nationwide, a rate on pace to be as severe as it was two years ago, the worst flu season in nearly a decade, according to a spokesman with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sonoma County health officials have not received reports of pediatric deaths related to the flu. Two children have so far died of influenza in California, according to the California Department of Public Health. Last year, the total number of children who died from an influenza-related illness hit 17.

People began getting sick with flu-like illnesses earlier this flu season than the prior one, especially in Southern states. This early onset can lead to a long flu season, federal health officials said.

"It's not too late to get your shot," Philip said. "If you haven't yet, there's still time. Get the vaccine. Protect yourself and those around you."

Many viruses causing fever and discomfort are called the flu, but true influenza virus strains are confirmed with a test and typically involve a sudden onset of fever and major discomfort.

"When people get the flu, they know it's the flu -- it hammers them," Green said.

Public health officials track influenza closely because although it is a common illness, the disease can be gravely dangerous when contracted by the elderly and young children, as well as people with compromised immune systems.

In Sonoma County, one person, who was older than 65, died from the flu in December, according to the health department. In California, 54 people have died from the flu since Sept. 29, according to state data collected from death certificates.

The CDC estimates about 6.4 ?million people have contracted the flu so far this season, leading to roughly 55,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 ?deaths. Those numbers are estimated through an analysis of available data, surveys and demographic information, according to an agency spokesman.

The influenza vaccine attacks four different strains of the virus. It's developed through a World Health Organization program using flu surveillance data worldwide to help scientists predict which strains might show up in greater numbers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes the final decision on the vaccine makeup in the country.

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