Flu deaths send many seeking vaccines

Flu continues to spread around the North Bay amid reports of a run on vaccines that has rendered some pharmacies temporarily short of doses at times, though there is an ample supply of shots overall and stores are easily replenished, health officials said.

Several flu-related deaths in the greater Bay Area -#8212; including two in Sonoma County -#8212; and experts' assurances that flu season has yet to reach its peak, appear to have put the disease front and center. A rush on vaccinations is one of the results.

But health experts say this year, especially, it's worth being persistent if that's what necessary to get a flu shot. They say this year's vaccine matches up well with the H1N1 flu strain that's been making folks sick in recent weeks.

It also appears that those who have become severely ill, once infected, have mostly been unvaccinated, said Gary Green, infectious disease chief at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa.

The fact that H1N1 seems to infect children and young adults disproportionately when compared with other flu strains also has caused alarm in the public and concern in the medical field as well, health experts said.

News last week of the death of an otherwise healthy 23-year-old Santa Rosa man, Matthew "Matty" Walker, proved an alarming reminder of how vicious the flu can be.

Whatever your age range, "don't let your guard down," Green said.

Though it takes two weeks after being vaccinated to reach maximum resistance to the flu virus, even a few days brings improved immune response, interim Sonoma County Public Health Officer Karen Holbrook said.

Public health officials Monday made public a second Sonoma County death, this time involving an unidentified 54-year-old person who had underlying medical conditions that may have contributed to his or her vulnerability. Holbrook would not release the person's gender or name out of privacy concerns.

She said the person was hospitalized and in active treatment at the time of his or her death Sunday.

Varying factors make it difficult to assess the full scope of the flu season so far or to compare incidence with prior years. California's reporting requirements not only have changed since 2010, they still only mandate reporting of flu-related deaths in people younger than 65, according to a spokeswoman for the California Department of Public Health.

In addition, because something like one in 10 people will fall ill with the flu in a given year, there will likely be several thousand people in Sonoma County alone who become ill with the flu this year without anyone keeping track, Holbrook said. Often, there is no laboratory confirmation of what virus affected them.

But state figures indicate at least 607 people died over 16 months during the 2009-2010 pandemic of H1N1, for which there was initially no vaccine, spokeswoman Norma Arceo said.

The state reported 106 flu-related deaths involving patients under age 65 in the 2012-13 season.

The state is only updating its current data weekly, but as of Friday had confirmed seven deaths in California, though more recent Bay Area reports include at least 18 flu-related deaths in the region. Many others have been reported elsewhere.

"You know, some years are mild and some years are tough, and this is a tough year," Green said. "But it's not out of the ordinary."

Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital reported having had eight confirmed cases of flu come in since October, three of them admitted, one to the intensive care unit.

At Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center, hospital staff has treated eight flu patients in the intensive care unit, including two who have been sent home, spokeswoman Lisa Amador said.

Probably 95 percent or more of those who become ill with flu will have mild to moderate cases, said Green.

But because even the young and healthy can be made severely ill, health officials are urging precautions for everyone, including vaccinations and common-sense health practices like staying home when you're ill, washing hands frequently, covering your cough and avoiding touching your face with anything but clean hands.

Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County's largest school district, has joined the effort, putting out an automated phone call to its 16,000 students Monday night, urging parents of students who show flulike symptoms like fever, cough, body aches, vomiting or diarrhea to stay home, avoid contact with other people and contact a doctor. Students are asked not to return to school until at least 24 hours after the vomiting and fever has ended.

"Healthy people are getting very sick," said Superintendent Socorro Shiels. "Everybody should just be as aware as possible about what is happening."

Sonoma Valley School District officials Tuesday were planning to notify parents to be aware of the differences between cold symptoms and those associated with the flu.

A letter going out is intended to "remind parents to keep their students home if they are not feeling well," said Superintendent Louann Carlomagno.

The Public Health Office maintains information on availability of flu vaccines and other information at www.sonoma-county.org/health/topics/influenza.asp.

You can reach Staff Writers Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com and Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com.