Flu deaths reach a high, but outbreak shows signs of easing

Simone Groper receives a flu shot at a Walgreens pharmacy in San Francisco. People are being encouraged to get flu shots even though the vaccine has been estimated to be only 30% effective in combating influenza.
Simone Groper receives a flu shot at a Walgreens pharmacy in San Francisco. People are being encouraged to get flu shots even though the vaccine has been estimated to be only 30% effective in combating influenza.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

California health officials said Friday that 36 Californians under the age of 65 died of the flu in the first week of February — more than in any other week this season.

The flu season nationwide is considered among the worst in a decade. Hospitals in California set up tents to triage flu patients, many pharmacies ran out of flu medicines and the death toll has been unusually high.

Gabriella Chabot, a student at La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks, was among those who died of complications of the flu.

She would have turned 15 in less than a week, her father Michael Chabot posted on Facebook on Friday.

“Today I experienced the day that no parent should,” Chabot wrote. “We are heartbroken.”

In total, 163 Californians under 65 have died of the flu since October, compared with 40 at the same time last year.

(Los Angeles Times)

Health officials say that though the flu is still spreading, it appears cases peaked in the state several weeks ago and that fewer people are falling sick now. The death count may continue to climb though, because people often die days, if not weeks, after first contracting the flu, experts say.

Still, doctors warn that there’s now another virus circulating in California that’s sending kids and older adults to the hospital struggling to breathe, and that a late wave of flu cases could be on the horizon.

“We’re hoping there’s not a second peak, but there can be,” said Dr. Andy Shen, an emergency room physician at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.

An uptick in Influenza B

Gabriella was a ninth-grader, remembered as “bright, engaging and kind,” according to a statement released by La Reina High School.

“The La Reina community shares in deep sorrow with the Chabot family upon the passing of their daughter, Gabriella,” the statement reads. “[She] will be deeply missed by her friends, and our faculty and staff.”

The school planned a vigil for Gabriella at 6 p.m. Friday in the school’s gymnasium.

Part of the reason people have been falling so ill was because they were being infected with a virulent strain of Influenza A known as H3N2. H3N2 infected so many people during Australia’s most recent flu season that it led to record numbers of sick people as well as the nickname "Aussie flu."

But recently there’s been an uptick in Influenza B cases. In the first week of February, 49% of people who tested positive for the flu had Influenza B, compared to 20% around the end of the year, according to data from a network of labs across California.

Shen with Torrance Memorial said that flu cases overall have dropped off since last month and among them have been more B cases. He said the disaster planning committee that they formed early in the flu season is now meeting every other week, instead of weekly.

“Though people feel terrible with Influenza B, the mortality rate is not as high,” he said.

Public health officials say it’s common to have a second wave of Influenza B after an initial peak of Influenza A. The flu season, which runs from October to May, typically reaches its height in February, but can do so anytime.

“It is not too late to get the influenza vaccine,” Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, interim health officer for Los Angeles County, said in a statement. The vaccine typically is more effective against B strains than A strains.

Lung infections in kids and elderly

Many hospitals are also reporting an increase in patients with respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. The virus is similar to a cold, but can cause an infection in small airways of the lungs called bronchioles.

“Every year in the winter, there’s a period where the pediatric floors fill up with bronchiolitis cases,” Shen said.

Very young children who are having trouble breathing may need to be hospitalized, experts say. Most RSV infections go away on their own and cause only a runny nose, a fever and sneezing. Almost everyone has had RSV by the time they are 2 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, patients who show up in the ER are tested for Influenza A, B as well as RSV. In the last few weeks, many older adults who are sick have turned out to have RSV, said Dr. Wally Ghurabi, the hospital’s ER director.

“I’m surprised,” Ghurabi said. “If we didn’t have that testing, honestly and truly, we probably would not have caught it.”

Dr. Robert Belshe, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at Saint Louis University, said that doctors have only recently begun to realize that RSV is a significant cause of hospitalizations and mortality among the elderly. Physicians often assume older patients just have the flu.

“Historically, we’ve thought of RSV as strictly a disease of children,” he said. “As we get older and frail, we become susceptible to fairly trivial viral infections. … That’s true for both flu and RSV."

Each year, RSV causes 14,000 deaths among adults older than 65 and 57,000 hospitalizations among children under 5, according to the CDC.

Parents who are worried about RSV should encourage good hand-washing and keep their kids away from others they know are sick, said Dr. Daniel Star, an ER doctor at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.

Star said they’ve been seeing RSV cases since December and he expects them to continue through the end of the month. Last year, RSV cases peaked nationwide between mid-December and February.

“Honestly there isn’t too much they can actually do. It’s a highly contagious virus,” Star said. “You still see it pretty much like wildfire this time of year.”

Twitter: @skarlamangla