Flu ‘on the upswing,’ with North Bay cases rising

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The number of flu cases in Sonoma County and across the nation is on the rise, with some of the most susceptible to catching and spreading the bug — holiday travelers — settling back into school and work, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medical professionals in the North Bay area said the weekly influenza reports published in coordination with the CDC showed rising numbers of flu cases as the season progresses.

Up to 84,000 people have been hospitalized in the period from Oct. 1 2018 through Jan. 5, the CDC reported.

“Week by week we’re seeing a steady rise of influenza A,” said Dr. Gary Green, head of infectious disease at Kaiser Santa Rosa Medical Center.

Local public health and hospital officials could not provide data this week that illustrated the trend.

State authorities have reported 52 influenza related deaths and at least eight separate outbreaks across California since the end of September, when the official flu season began.

So far, no outbreaks have been reported in residential care facilities in Sonoma County, which care for an especially vulnerable population, and the county has recorded no flu-related deaths of people under 18. The county no longer requires severe or fatal cases of lab-confirmed influenza in people ages 18 to 64 be reported.

Though local flu cases this season aren’t measuring up with years past, with hospitalization numbers still relatively low, the virus is now widespread across the state and country, authorities said.

“It’s on the upswing so we don’t know where it’s going,” said Dr. Karen Holbrook, Sonoma County’s deputy health officer.

The most commonly identified flu virus this season is H1N1, different from the H3N2 strain that dominated in more severe flu seasons, including last year’s which the CDC reported said was the worst since H1N1 pandemic in 2009. More than 48 million U.S. flu cases were reported in the 2017-18 season, with nearly 1 million hospitalizations and almost 80,000 deaths.

At Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, since November 2018, there have been 62 cases of influenza recorded, said Christina Harris, regional manager for public relations at St. Joseph’s Health.

Petaluma Valley Hospital reported only 26 cases of influenza presenting themselves so far, a drop of about 60 percent from this time last year, Harris said.

At Kaiser, about 23 percent of nasal swabs for the flu have come back positive in the last week, Green said, reflective of an average flu season.

“We’re having sort of a normal flu season,” Green said. “This year the flu vaccine appears to be a good match.”

It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine, which is generally effective within two weeks, according to the CDC.

“Vaccination will help make the illness more mild because you’ve already got the antibodies to fight the virus,” Holbrook said.

The flu vaccine is not on the list of required immunizations for students in K-12 public schools, but many school officials say they take precaution by keeping classrooms clean, advising students to wash hands and use hand sanitizer and directing families to places they can get the flu shot.

“We care about student safety and student health. The flu is no joke,” said Lynzie Brodhun, assistant principal at Thomas Page Academy in Cotati.

Petaluma High School principal David Stirrat emphasized the importance of preventative measures, especially hand washing. School resumed this week after winter break and students who get sick can start a chain reaction at school if they don’t take precautions, Stirrat said.

“We haven’t really had a real uptick in flu so far,” Stirrat said.

Schools prepare annually for flu outbreaks, and district officials said they reviewed information released by the CDC in the fall going into this year’s flu season to be prepared for any new strains or threats to student health.

Symptoms tend to be much more severe than a common cold, and range in intensity depending on age and an individual’s immune system, health officials said.

Flu victims can suffer from symptoms including high fever, chills, headaches, nausea and vomiting, Green said. Some children can get leg cramps from the flu.

“With the flu, it hits you like a brick — really fast. Within an hour they’re very well, then very sick,” Green said. “They’re in bed all day. People who have the flu remember and they don’t forget it,” Green said.

Holbrook advised anyone who gets the flu to stay home until 24 hours after fever is gone, cover nose and mouth with a tissue or elbow when coughing, wash hands often and avoid touching the nose, mouth and eyes.

“We all have a role in preventing the spread of flu,” Holbrook said.

For those leery of the flu shot or of vaccines in general, Kathleen Sarmento, director of nursing at Santa Rosa Community Health, which operates 10 centers across the city, said it’s “absolutely scientifically proven” that people don’t get the flu from a flu shot.

“When you get a flu shot, it actually boosts your immune system,” Sarmento said.

The county has an online list of clinics that provide flu shots.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini. You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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