California flu deaths for those under 65 running far ahead of last year

A woman receives a flu vaccination in Los Angeles. Influenza-related illness has killed 147 people under age 65 in California this season; at the same point last year, only 14 people in that age group had died of the flu, officials say.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Influenza-related illness has killed 147 Californians under age 65 this season, including 17 people in Los Angeles County and one in Long Beach, state health officials have confirmed.

The toll is unusually high: At the same point last year, only 14 people in that age group had died of the flu, Dr. James Watt of the California Department of Public Health told reporters Friday.

Throughout the entire 2012-2013 flu season, the state logged just 106 confirmed deaths.

The new fatalities are a sign that this year’s flu season continues to be especially severe, even as some indicators of influenza activity, such as hospitalizations for flu-related illness, seem to be plateauing in L.A. County, California and elsewhere across the U.S.


“Unfortunately, one of the things we always say about influenza is that it’s unpredictable,” said Watt, chief of the public health department’s Division of Communicable Disease Control. “It’s too early to say if this decline will be sustained.”

The state confirmed 52 new deaths last week. Public health workers were investigating an additional 44 reported influenza deaths, most of which are likely to be confirmed in coming days.

“We expect the number to climb,” Watt said.

L.A. County also released flu statistics Friday.

The county Department of Public Health’s latest Influenza Watch update indicated that activity was “still up, but leveling off,” with slight decreases in the number of flu-related visits to emergency departments and positive flu tests in recent weeks.

But even with those reductions, the number of flu illnesses remained high, said department Director Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who urged everyone — especially members of high-risk groups such as the elderly, pregnant women and people with underlying medical conditions — to get a flu vaccine.

“Anyone who hasn’t been immunized, there’s still time,” Fielding said. “There’s going to be a lot of flu, and the flu will hang around for months.”

The county reported that 33 people, including two children, had died of the illness as of Jan. 25.

Several factors could account for the disparity between the state and county tallies, Watt said.

Counties report flu deaths before the state confirms fatalities, so sometimes state numbers lag behind. Additionally, some counties — including Los Angeles — include deaths among people above the age of 65.

The state Department of Public Health focuses on deaths among younger people because that metric provides a useful gauge of the severity of the flu season’s illnesses, Watt said.

Typically, influenza strikes very old people or very young children more intensely than it affects young adults. But this year’s predominant strain, H1N1 or swine flu, has behaved differently from past seasons — sickening otherwise healthy, younger adults.

Watt said Friday that it was not yet clear that H1N1 would result in a disproportionate number of deaths among younger, healthy people this season. The “great majority” of fatalities so far in California had occurred in people with underlying medical conditions that could put them at higher risk, he said.

“We’re still tracking how this virus will behave this year,” he said, adding that national data seem to show that H1N1 was behaving “more like a typical virus” than it did during the 2009 pandemic, when swine flu contributed to thousands of deaths around the world.

“It certainly is impacting young adults, but it’s less pronounced” than in the past, he said.

The public health department does not yet have data detailing how many Californians have received a flu vaccine this season.

Doses of the flu shot and nasal spray are “widely available,” Watt said.

In 2012-2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated, 44.2% of Californians age 6 months or older received a flu immunization.