LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – As a flu epidemic crosses the nation, state and local health officials said California so far is not seeing an unusual spike in the seasonal illness, but they nonetheless urged people to be vaccinated as a precaution before the season peaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that 47 states have reported widespread geographic influenza activity, up from 41 the previous week.
The CDC estimates that an average of 25,000 people die annually from flu across the United States, with the elderly, children and other special populations proving to be especially vulnerable.
The California Department of Public Health's surveillance indicators are showing a steady increase in influenza activity in California.
Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health and state health officer, said that while California is seeing an increase in flu activity, it's not an unexpected one.
“California is seeing an accelerated increase in flu activity over the past few weeks,” said Dr. Chapman. “You can help prevent further spread of the flu by getting a flu shot.”
Chapman's office reported that while influenza activity varies from year to year and is unpredictable, California generally sees an increase in cases in late December or early January and it often peaks in February or March.
“So far it's been very quiet,” said Dr. Karen Tait, Lake County's public health office.
Tait said she has not heard any reports of case spikes from local hospitals. Lake County News also did not receive responses back from local hospitals on Friday regarding the numbers of cases.
Tait said her office also hasn't gotten any notice of “reportable cases,” which are limited to flu deaths to people under age 65.
“In terms of even just informal reports, we’re not getting a lot of activity so far,” she said. “We don’t know if that means we’re still on an upswing and it hasn’t gotten here yet.”
However, she points out that the annual flu spikes are normal. “People forget what the normal seasonal flu does.”
“The best defense against the flu is getting vaccinated. This year’s vaccine is an excellent match against this year’s influenza strains,” Dr. Chapman said. “There is no shortage of vaccine in California and it is not too late to get vaccinated. Our flu season may not peak for several more weeks, so I encourage everyone to get vaccinated to protect not only themselves, but those with whom they come into contact.”
Tait agreed. While in many places across the country flu vaccine is running out, Tait said her office has plenty.
The CDC reported that 90 percent of all of the flu strains circulating are included in the vaccine. More than 130 million doses that were produced by the vaccine manufacturers this year already have been given.
Since scheduled clinics are past, Tait said people can call the Public Health Department to check on times for when to come in for shots.
She said it's best to call ahead of time. “It’s gotten quite busy all of a sudden,” she said, a fact she attributed to increased media attention about the flu.
“After a few years of fairly flu seasons, people weren’t all that eager to be vaccinated this year,” she said.
It may be more “hit and miss” supply-wise for local doctors and other care providers. Tait urged people to call their providers right away to check on availability.
Not available is the flu mist nasal spray which have expired, and usually expires fairly quickly in the flu season, Tait said.
Regarding why flu is worse some years than others, Tait explained that flu strains “do evolve and change,” and sometimes those changes are minor and sometimes major.
If a strain is similar to one that was widespread 20 years ago, older people might find they are relatively protected, she said.
Tait said Lake County always has been fortunate because in its rural environment there are not a lot of venues for people to crowd together and thus spread the flu more.
Dr. Chapman noted that in addition to getting vaccinated, it’s important to practice good hand washing and other good health habits.
Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.
People who are ill should take actions to stop the spread of germs such as limiting contact with others; covering one's nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing; washing hands thoroughly with soap and water or using an alcohol-based rub; and avoiding touching one's eyes, nose and mouth, Chapman’s office said.
State health care officials said special care should be shown to high risk groups, including the elderly, pregnant women, infants or those with other health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable. When they show flu symptoms a physician should be contacted immediately.
To find out more about flu vaccines, call Lake County Public Health, 707-263-1090.
Email Elizabeth Larson at [email protected] . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.