State health officials confirmed Friday that this year's flu outbreak, while still widespread, is winding down even as it continues to claim lives.
The announcement confirms observations by local public health officials that the spread of flu is declining.
"The downward trend of flu activity appears to be holding," said Karen Holbrook, interim public health officer for Sonoma County. "The level of flu activity is still quite high and we expect to have flu circulating in the community for a while longer."
Dr. James Watt, head of the state's division of communicable disease control, said in a telephone press conference Friday morning that the seasonal peak may have occurred three or four weeks ago.
Watt said last week there were 56 new confirmed flu-related deaths, bringing the state total to 202. He said that by this time last year there were only 18. He said there were 106 flu deaths for entire 2012-2013 flu season.
Holbrook said thus far there have been 21 severe flu cases in Sonoma County. Among these, six patients have died. A severe case is one where a patient either requires admission to an intensive care unit or dies.
Watt also said there are 41 possible flu-related deaths currently being investigated in California, making it likely the death will continue to climb. But he said that many of those who have recently died became ill several weeks ago.
"Looking at the onset of illness, the number of deaths by each week appear to be decreasing," said Watt. "Death is something of a lagging indicator."
A majority of the state's flu deaths involved patients with underlying health problems, with many of them between the ages of 40 and 64, Watt said.
Watt said that the flu vaccine is still widely available and that it's not too late to get vaccinate.
"There are several weeks left in the flu season," he said.
Holbrook said the current flu season started in November, but that most of the severe flu occurred mid-to-late December.
She said the season appears to have peaked in mid January and it's unknown when it will end.
(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)