Health officials: Get flu shots

For pharmacists during flu season, when it rains it pours. Take Aman Garg, pharmacy manager of Sonoma’s Pharmaca, who saw a trickle of locals come in for vaccines at the start of the season, then a flood as reports of people dying from influenza started appearing in the news.

“It was kind of slow until Dec. 31,” Garg said of the Napa Street pharmacy. Then, “all of a sudden,” demand went crazy in the New Year. Last week, he said, Pharmaca was struggling to keep up with a demand of 30 to 40 shots a day.

That roughly fits with the timing of this season’s first reported flu deaths in California, with four going into the New Year, three in the first week of January, and 38 in the second week of January, according to the California Department of Public Health.

As of Monday, a total of 45 deaths were confirmed to have occurred around the state this season due to the flu virus, and another 50 flu-death cases are under investigation. In Sonoma County, three people have died from the flu since Jan. 8.

“They hear of somebody dying, they start coming,” Garg said.

On Monday, demand already seemed to be dropping off again, with only two patients coming in for shots that morning. Still, Garg said he had about 105 vaccinations in stock, and expected to use them all by next weekend.

At the county level also, those administering flu vaccines are seeing a “quick increase of activity in the last two or three weeks,” said Tammy Moss-Chandler, assistant director of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this season is worse than normal.

“It’s too early for us to tell really for the whole season whether it’s going to be more or less severe,” Moss-Chandler said.

So far this season there have been a dozen flu cases in Sonoma County identified as “severe,” meaning patients were checked into an intensive care unit or died from their illness. Of those, the three county residents who have died are: a 61-year-old woman on Jan. 15, a 54-year-old woman on Jan. 12 and a 23-year-old man on Jan. 8.

Although the older victims had prior medical conditions making them more vulnerable to the virus, the younger victim – Matthew Walker of Santa Rosa – had no known medical conditions, health officials said. Moss-Chandler said authorities do not yet know what happened in his case.

All three victims were infected with the H1N1 strain of the flu, and some medical experts say Walker’s death fits a pattern with that strain: Even healthy young adults appear to be vulnerable.

But Moss-Chandler said that despite news reports to that effect – the same reports driving more people to their local pharmacy – there is no evidence yet of H1N1 being a “super-flu.”

“There is some media attention maybe raising those fears, but we don’t have evidence of that,” she said.

Super or no, the flu can be horrible, and health officials say prevention remains the best option. In a statement released Friday, Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, advised people of all ages to get vaccinated, noting that there are still plenty of doses to go around. In addition, he offered the following tips for getting through the rest of flu season:

• Cover your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing (doctors advise using your arm, not your hand)

• Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based rub

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth

• If you get sick, avoid contact with others

As Moss-Chandler put it, “Stay home, if you’re sick, instead of going to work or school. Take care of yourself.”