Flu claims life of 4th person in Merced County

Health officials on Thursday confirmed Merced County’s fourth flu-related death.

Four men in the county ages 20 to 60 have died so far this influenza season, and all of the deaths were related to the H1N1 influenza A strain, according to Kathleen Grassi, director of the Merced County Department of Public Health.

Four others in the same age range – two men and two woman – have been hospitalized in intensive care units, Grassi said. Hospitals in the county are not required to report flu-related deaths for anyone older than 65, she said.

Grassi said the number of serious cases is about average for Merced County. “We don’t have skyrocketing numbers,” she said. “This time of year is when influenza peaks.”

Grassi said she does not have information on the underlying health conditions of the men who died, or if they received flu shots.

This year’s flu vaccine protects against multiple strains of the virus, including H1N1. Grassi said the county sometimes sees flu cases as late as April, so getting the shot is still “definitely” recommended.

So far, 25 deaths linked to the flu have been reported in the the central San Joaquin Valley. Fresno County has had 14; Merced County, four; Kings County, four; Madera County, two; and Tulare County, one.

The foothill communities in Mariposa County have recorded one death and four hospitalizations related to the virus, said Dr. Charles Mosher, the county’s health officer. The man who died was older than 65.

Mosher said all five serious cases were related to H1N1, which has been widely circulating this year. That strain was new to doctors in 2009 and led to a pandemic.

Mosher said his office has seen an increase in the number of people looking for vaccines late in the season. He said it’s not too late to get the shot. “It’s getting late in the season, but it’s still better than nothing,” he said.

Smokers, asthma sufferers, diabetics, anyone with kidney problems and people with lung problems are the most susceptible to complications from the flu.

Mosher said his office monitors the number of students reported absent during the flu season. He said the percentage of absent students on any given day is 5 to 10 percent at elementary schools in the county. All of those schools reported higher numbers the week before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, with one as high as 17 percent, he said.

“That’s one of the ways we monitor illnesses because not everybody who is sick goes to the doctor,” Mosher said.

Experts recommend the vaccine.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, www.flu.gov, lists drugstores in Merced County and elsewhere that offer flu shots.

The Merced County Public Health clinic, 260 E. 15th St., administers shots on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings. Call (209) 381-1010.

Golden Valley Health and Mercy Medical offer flu shots as well. Contact Golden Valley at (209) 383-7441, and Mercy Medical at (209) 564-5000.

People seeking a flu shot in Los Banos can make an appointment with Memorial Hospital’s Rural Health Clinic at (209) 710-6333.

To prevent the spread of flu, people are advised to stay home when sick; cover coughs or sneezes with their elbow; wash hands; and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

Anyone with flulike symptoms should call a doctor or medical hotline before going to a clinic or hospital to avoid spreading the virus, experts say.

Flu season can run as late as April. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches, and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

More information is available at Merced County’s website, www.co.merced.ca.us.