There have been four reported deaths in Santa Clara County as of Dec. 30, and one in Monterey County as of Dec. 28.
Flu sufferers are flooding hospital emergency rooms, and call centers are receiving a deluge of phone calls from those reporting fevers, coughs, sore throats, runny noses, headaches and other symptoms of the virus. Over-the-counter medicines are flying off the shelves. Across the region, public health officials are recommending that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot ASAP if they haven’t done so already.
“Last year was the worst flu season in a decade, and this year may even eclipse last year’s in terms of its severity and the number of people affected,” said Dr. Randy Bergen, who oversees the Northern California Kaiser Permanente flu vaccine program.
Kaiser uses a respiratory viral swab test to determine whether a person has influenza. When the number of positive tests reaches 10 percent, Bergen said, it’s considered flu season. Last week, 49 percent of the samples taken from Northern California Kaiser patients tested positive. Last year, at the peak of the flu season, Bergen said 41 percent of the samples were positive. The hospital conducted 2,500 swabs during the peak of flu season in 2017, but almost 5,000 last week.
“It’s not just one or two pockets,” said Bergen, a Walnut Creek pediatrician. “It’s from Santa Rosa to Fresno and from Santa Clara to Roseville. We’re seeing a lot of people with the flu and a lot of busy clinics.”
For most people, getting the flu means being miserable for several days. But for young children, elderly people and those with compromised immune systems, influenza can cause serious illness and death.
A 12-month-old baby succumbed to the virus on Dec. 31, in San Diego, according to the county of San Diego.
With another severe epidemic upon us, some area hospitals are instituting temporary visitor restrictions to protect their patients from getting the flu.
This week, Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose and Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz banned visitors under 16 as well as anyone with cold or flu symptoms. El Camino Hospital in Mountain View and Los Gatos plans to follow suit Monday at 7 a.m. Hospital officials said the restrictions will continue for as long as the flu season lasts.
“It’s to safeguard our patients and staff during the flu season,” said Good Samaritan spokeswoman Allison Everman. “We restrict children 16 and under because they are more at risk for respiratory infections and are more likely to present a health risk to patients as they can’t always contain their cough or their sneezes.”
Public health officials have seen a surge of flu cases in long-term care facilities, which is of particular concern, according to Dr. David Chang, San Mateo County Health System’s interim communicable disease controller.
“They are at the highest risk of suffering from bad effects from the flu, so we spend a lot of energy trying to get as man people vaccinated in these communities as possible and trying to prevent the spread,” Chang said.
San Mateo joined other counties in urging all residents to get the flu vaccine.
“The flu vaccine is safe and effective and the most important tool against the spread of influenza,” Chang said. “It is not only important to get your vaccine but to make sure your friends and loved ones get it too.”
Since the vaccine takes two weeks to become fully effective, health officials said it’s important to get the flu vaccine as soon as possible. It’s especially important for pregnant women, children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, and those with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes.
Health officials have said this year’s vaccine is not as effective as years past, and there are strains of the flu that are resistant to it, but they also said some protection is still better than none.
“Even if it’s not perfect, it’s giving you some protection,” Bergen said. “Whereas not getting vaccinated provides no protection.”
Meanwhile, public health officials urged residents to take basic steps to protect themselves and their loved ones from the flu:
• Cough or sneeze into a tissue, and if one is not available, into your elbow.
• Avoid touching your eyes nose or mouth.
• Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and warm water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Stay home until you have been symptom-free for 24 hours.
Staff writer Tracy Seipel contributed to this report.