Harsh flu season hits Petaluma hard

As a particularly vicious flu season is gripping Sonoma County and California, local health officials are urging Petalumans to get vaccinated and take precautions to avoid a bug that’s already knocked many residents out of commission.

This flu season kicked off earlier than usual, with cases reported in December, weeks earlier than the typical January start, Sonoma County Health Officer Karen Milman said. This year, seven severe cases, or incidents where patients have been admitted to the intensive care unit, have been reported in Sonoma County residents under the age of 65, Department of Health Services Communications Manager Scott Alonso said. No flu-related deaths have been reported.

The flu is “circulating widely” throughout the state, with 32 people dying of the flu between Jan. 7 and Jan. 13, according to the most recent data from the California Department of Public Health. In all, 74 people under age 65 have died of the flu since October, compared with 14 during the same time frame last year, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Influenza A is this year’s most vexing strain, though cases of Influenza B have also been reported, Milman said. Though the vaccine is considered to be less effective in combating Influenza A, Milman said it’s a good idea to get the shot.

“In general we think the vaccine is still your best protection against the flu,” she said.

Petaluma hospitals and health care centers have this year been inundated with cases of flu-like symptoms, officials said.

“What we’ve seen this year has been like what everyone else is seeing in the state of California — a severe flu year with a lot of people calling and coming in with what we call influenza-like illness,” Petaluma Health Center’s Chief Medical Officer Nurit Licht said.

This flu season, the center’s two clinics in Rohnert Park and Petaluma have administered 6,000 flu vaccines, she said. Since Jan. 1, doctors have seen 200 patients with influenza-like illnesses, Licht said. Clinicians attempt to keep between 35 and 50 appointments open on any given day, but the numbers of available appointments dropped to as low as four last Friday, she said.

Though no local historical data was available, this flu season in Petaluma is on par with the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, Licht said. Countywide, 31 severe cases of the flu were reported, including 11 fatalities, Alonso said. The next worst year on the books was 2012-13, when 26 severe cases, including seven deaths, were reported.

The clinic began its vaccination campaign in earnest at the onset of flu season, reaching out to patients to encourage them to get the flu shot, Licht said. Especially at risk are those over the age of 65, children or those with chronic conditions, she said.

At Petaluma Valley Hospital, the city’s sole acute care facility, physicians have seen between 11 and 16 patients with flu-like symptoms daily since Dec. 15, according to St. Joseph’s Director of Nursing Services- Inpatient and Emergency Services Wendi Thomas. Of the average 10 tests per day, about 40 to 70 percent return positive results for the flu, mostly for the Influenza A strain, Thomas said.

“Several” patients have been admitted to the critical care unit for the flu, though no specific numbers were available. While comparative data was not available for previous years, physicians and nurses generally note that “this flu season is much worse than previous years,” Thomas said.

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