Merced County public health officials on Monday warned that San Joaquin Valley counties could see an increase in flu cases soon.
The news follows a huge increase in flu cases nationwide, resulting in the deaths of 20 children.
Merced County officials generally start seeing an increase of flu cases in late December and early January, with the peak of the season in February or March.
"The fact that the peak hasn't hit us provides us a good opportunity for people who haven't gotten their vaccine to get vaccinated," said Richard Rios, program manager with the Merced County Department of Public Health.
The agency is prepared if there is a big spike in cases, Rios said. There is also no indication there could be a shortage of vaccine in the county.
In addition, this year's flu vaccine has been a good match against the circulating flu virus, Rios said.
Local officials are monitoring flu surveillance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The department has given information to local providers about the types of flu cases that are reportable, Rios said. Doing so helps determine impact of the flu and how many cases result in severe hospitalizations and possible fatalities.
"That gives us some measure of the severity and overall impact," he said. "But we know that getting vaccinated is a very effective way to protect oneself."
That's particularly true for those considered to be at higher risk, which include the elderly, pregnant women, infants and those suffering from a chronic health condition, Rios said.
Local public health officials plan to send a health advisory with updated flu information to local providers and recommend that health providers and health care workers receive the flu shot, Rios said. That not only protects the health care worker, but those they provide care for, he added.
Charm Patton, vice president of Human Resources at Mercy Medical Center, said Dignity Health and Mercy require an annual offering of the flu vaccine to all employees, volunteers and providers. "Any can choose to decline the vaccine, but must sign a declination form," she said.
Because of patient confidentiality rules, the hospital was not able to say how many employees declined.
To date, legislation has not mandated that health care workers be vaccinated, according to Patton. "More specifically, each county public health officer decides the risk factors for their county," she said.
"If they feel warranted, they have the authority to mandate that health care workers wear a mask or be vaccinated."
At this point, the hospital does not have any issues with staff taking the flu shot or opting not to take it, Patton added.
Rios said the county's public health officer has recommended that the community follow the most current recommendations but has not issued an order related to the issue.
However, the public health officer urges and encourages everyone to follow preventive measures. In addition to getting vaccinated, it's important to cover coughs and sneezes, frequently wash hands and stay home when sick, Rios said.
Local public health officials recommend that schools and child care providers get the latest flu information by visiting the websites of the Merced County health department or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ONLINE: For more information, go to www.co.merced.ca.us/index.aspx?nid=825
You can visit www.flu.gov to find a place in your area to get a flu shot.
Or for more information, go to http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/season/index.htm
PHONE: Or call the automated information line. For English dial (209) 381-1180 or for Spanish dial (209) 381-1181.
CLINICS: The Merced County Department of Public Health offers flu vaccinations during its regularly scheduled immunization clinics in Merced and Los Banos.