A 1-year-old baby has died in San Diego from complications stemming from influenza – one of 34 new flu deaths reported as the epidemic sweeps the county, and lawmakers are calling for action.
The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) said Wednesday this brings the season’s total number of flu-related deaths to 45 in San Diego County. At this time last season, there had been five flu deaths reported in the area.
"In one week, we’ve doubled the total number of cases and the number of deaths has quadrupled," Deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Sayone Thihalolipavan said.
The baby died on New Year’s Eve and is the youngest victim thus far. The 45 people who have died from the flu are between the ages of 1 to 100. Each person had underlying medical conditions, per health officials.
"Some people die from the flu and then some people die from complications of the flu, or complications of their underlying medical conditions," Thihalolipavan said. "As you get the flu it triggers immune system and a lot of stress to your body and make worse a lot of your regular medical conditions."
Underlying conditions can range from neurological, respiratory and cardiac conditions, Thihalolipavan said.
The HHSA said 3,334 lab-confirmed flu cases were reported by the close of last week in San Diego. So far this season, there have been 7,314 cases in the county compared to 883 at this time last season.
Last week’s tally alone is higher than the overall total flu cases reported in San Diego during the 2011-2012, 2008-2009 and 2007-2008 seasons, health officials said.
The rise in flu cases has been straining local emergency rooms. Last week, Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa set up tents outside the emergency room to treat an influx of flu patients.
On Wednesday, Palomar Medical Center Escondido said the facility was triaging flu patients in a temporary "surge tent" set up outside its Emergency Department. Nurses were screening patients and handing out masks.
A Palomar Medical spokesperson said the emergency room has seen "an unusually high volume of patients this season, treating as many as 40 percent more patients than the norm on any given day."
Meanwhile, some pharmacies and stores have reported shelves being emptied of cold medicines as locals attempt to remedy their symptoms.
Health officials say those who are sick should stay home to avoid infecting others at work, school or public places. Those who are sick should also avoid shaking hands, sharing food or drinks or kissing.
The public is also urged to wash their hands often, use hand sanitizers and clean commonly touched surfaces often.
A flu vaccination is also an important line of defense.
Of the 45 flu-related deaths in San Diego County, only 12 people were vaccinated. The 1-year-old was partially vaccinated.
"Some people might look at that number and they think 'Oh, well the vaccine might not be that effective' or 'I shouldn’t get the vaccine' but again, it’s the best public health tool we have," Thihalolipavan said. "The number we don’t know is how many deaths were avoided because of being vaccinated."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated.
Those at the highest risk of developing complications from the flu include people age 65 and older, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes and lung disease. For information on county public health centers offering the flu shot, click here or call 211.
At a County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, HHSA officials briefly addressed the flu epidemic in San Diego.
Dr. Nick Yphantides, M.D., M.H.P., of the HSSA, said the county is actively spreading awareness of the flu epidemic in San Diego.
County supervisors Ron Roberts and Diane Jacob said the health department should consider declaring a public health emergency for this flu outbreak.
“I want an action plan,” Roberts said. “I want to know what we can do. I want to know if there’s anything in the way of resources that we need to provide. I want to push (the health department) a little bit, to get on top of this.”
Supervisor Jacob said she's alarmed by the scope and deadly impact of this season’s flu outbreak.
“The spike in deaths is alarming, and further evidence that we should take a hard look at how this is impacting the region,” said Supervisor Jacob.
But the county's chief medical officer said it is too early to tell if this will be an especially bad flu season.
“The reality is, we are having a much higher flu activity in our region than is typical at this time of year,” he explained. “The system has been stressed. We have had early discussions and, as of this point in time, don’t feel that there is a reason to declare a public health emergency.”
While the county debates its response to the outbreak, Supervisor Roberts urged all unvaccinated San Diegans to get a flu shot, now.
“That’s number one,” Roberts said. “Absolutely get vaccinated. Get yourself and everyone in your family, and get them vaccinated.”