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The H1N1 flu virus claimed its third victim Wednesday at Santa Rosa's Sutter Medical Center, according to hospital officials.

"We are saddened to report that we have had a death in the hospital today due to H1N1," said William Carroll, vice president of medical affairs for the hospital. "For patient privacy reasons, we are unable to disclose more information."

Karen Holbrook, the county's interim public health officer, said Wednesday that the patient was a 61-year-old woman who had underlying medical conditions that put her at risk of severe illness.

Holbrook would not release any other information about the patient.

Holbrook said the county has thus far seen 12 severe cases of H1N1 related illness. A severe case is where a patient is either admitted into an intensive care unit or dies because of their illness.

The news comes on the heels of the death of a 54-year-old woman on Sunday. That patient also had underlying medical conditions, Holbrook said.

The season's first flu-related death occurred Jan. 8, when Matthew "Matty" Walker, 23, of Santa Rosa died after he contracted the H1N1 flu virus. Health officials said that in that case, Walker had no previous underlying medical conditions.

Holbrook emphasized that the best defense is vaccination and said there are currently no long-term shortages of vaccine.

News of the recent flu deaths has resulted in an increased demand for flu vaccine. And while there have been anecdotal reports of temporary shortages at local pharmacies and doctors' offices, health care officials say there is no long-term shortage.

"We have been reassured by the state who has been in communication with vaccine suppliers that there is no overall shortage," Holbrook said. "The shortages that people have been experiencing have been very short term ... those supplies are usually replenished by the next day."

Holbrook said the county health department has reached out to local hospitals and is currently in the process of reaching out to local health centers to check on the status of vaccine supplies.

"Our understanding is that it's been sort of a similar experience. There have been some instances where they've run out at the end of the day, but they get more the next day," she said.

On Wedenesday afternoon, the CVS on Mendocino Avenue was reporting that they had run out of vaccine for the day.

At the CVS on Fourth Street and Farmers Lane, pharmacy staff said they had vaccine but that they were giving priority to people who had asked to be put on a waiting list. Some on the list had been waiting for two days.

Responding to temporary shortages, Mike DeAngelis, director of public relations for CVS, said the current flu outbreak has increased demand.

"We currently have vaccine available and we will continue to vaccinate patients for as long as supplies last," DeAngelis said. "It is possible that individual locations may experience sporadic shortages of flu vaccine based on demand, and we make every effort to resupply any pharmacy that runs out of vaccine as quickly as possible."

Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa was forced to reorder more flu vaccine to stay ahead of current demand, according to Gary Green, infectious disease chief at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa.

Green said Kaiser in Santa Rosa has administered more than 60,000 flu vaccines this season, "probably more like 65,000" since September.

"Everyone's running low and they're purchasing more," Green said. "But the good news is there's more vaccine to purchase."

Kaiser officials said Wednesday that since their flu clinics began in September, more than 1.2 million doses of vaccine have been administered to Northern California members.

Kaiser facilities experienced some isolated shortages last week, but were able to transfer available supplies from other facilities to meet demand. On Monday, Kaiser received another 20,000 doses from suppliers and these have been send out to Kaiser pharmacies and clinics.

Kaiser said it expects to receive another 40,000 vaccine doses this week and is prepared to order more as demand dictates.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccine manufacturers estimate that between 138 and 145 million doses of flu vaccine will be produced for the American market during this flu season. The figure is an increase from an initial estimate of between 135 to 139 million.

Vaccine manufacturers include GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Paspeur, where both Sutter Medical Center and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital order their supplies.

St. Joseph Health Sonoma County, which operates Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals, said there are currently no shortages of flu vaccine at either hospital.

The family medicine offices of Annadel Medical Group in Santa Rosa, which is affiliated with St. Joseph Health, have had no problems with obtaining sufficient vaccine supplies for their patients.

"So far all looks good on our end in terms of having sufficient vaccine supplies within the St. Joseph Health network of care for our patients," said St. Joseph Health spokeswoman Katy Hillenmeyer.

Holbrook, the Sonoma county public health officer, said people are best off getting vaccines from their medical providers, because they are best set up to administer them.

"They just get the shipment the next day," she said. "There can be some inconveniences to people, but there's no overall shortage. We're trying to follow that pretty closely, and I haven't myself heard of anything beyond a couple short-term shortages that were rectified right away. I'm talking about pharmacies but we're also checking in with our clinics, too."

She said the Santa Rosa Health Centers and the West County Clinic "have been busy, and I haven't heard of any shortage."

Beatrice Bostick, chief executive at the nonprofit Alliance Medical Center, which runs community clinics in Healdsburg and Windsor, said her staff has been hearing from patients about vaccine shortages at local chains like Safeway, Rite Aid and elsewhere, and is planning a flu shot clinic at its Healdsburg location next Thursday afternoon.

"Obviously, this H1N1 flu strain has gotten a lot of publicity over the last few years, so people are more concerned about this flu than they are in general flu seasons," she said.

"In any given flu season, only about 50 percent of the population gets a flu shot," she said. This time, she said people's "interest has gone up."

The flu clinic Jan. 23, is from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at 1381 University Ave. The clinic is aimed primarily at the low-income patients from Healdsburg.

The Windsor clinic also is providing daily shots though no dedicated flu clinic is planned.

"It's highly recommended for the elderly and anyone who has a chronic medical condition that might make them more vulnerable to a serious bout of flu," Bostick said.

Holbrook said that while the current flu season is worse than last year, it's too early to tell how bad the current flu season is compared to the outbreak of H1N1 flu in 2009.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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