California has seen a surge of people sickened by influenza in the past several weeks, leading state officials to believe more hospitalizations and deaths are going to occur.
Dr. Mark Horton, the state's public health director, said this week that outbreaks of H1N1 influenza are occurring in more than half of the regions of California.
The novel flu virus remains a leading health concern because people younger than 60 are believed to have no immunity to it, Horton said. As of Thursday, the pandemic flu had caused 206 deaths statewide and more than 2,700 Californians have been hospitalized.
Horton dismissed a suggestion that the public was unduly alarmed.
"We don't think we are exaggerating the seriousness and the concern," he said. "We face an unusual challenge that requires all of us to be prepared in the months ahead."
Horton's news conference Thursday was timed with the release of 400,000 doses of nasal spray vaccine to health care providers in California. Most of the nasal vaccine is being given to targeted groups such as children ages 2 and older and parents or caregivers of infants younger than 6 months.
The nasal spray is designed for healthy people ages 2 to 49. It is not recommended for pregnant women and people with asthma.
Injectable form coming soon
Officials said more doses are expected in the coming weeks, including the injectable form of the vaccine. It should be more widely available from private physicians, health clinics and community flu shot clinics.
In addition, Walgreens, Target, Rite-Aid and Safeway pharmacies have told the state they will give vaccinations when supplies are available.
"Clearly, vaccination is the most effective preventive measure," Horton said.
Patients stricken with H1N1 can be given Tamiflu or similar drugs to slow down the viral infection or antibiotics if they have a secondary bacterial infection. Getting a prescription for Tamiflu usually requires an H1N1 diagnosis or the patient to have an underlying health condition.
A fair amount of people have gone to drugstores to buy over-the-counter products to alleviate symptoms.
Ted Smernes, owner of Ceres Drug Store, said periodic surges of customers have come through the doors. They often are looking for products such as Kaopectate or Imodium for diarrhea or Robitussin to alleviate chest congestion.
Tamiflu in demand
Smernes said the pharmacy keeps busy filling prescriptions for Tamiflu. The liquid version of the medication for children has been unavailable from suppliers for weeks, so the pharmacists grind Tamiflu capsules to make the pediatric medicine.
"The manufacturers didn't make enough of the liquid form," he said. "When the epidemic in Mexico occurred (in March and April) there was a shortage of the medication."
Jose Carranza, who owns independent drugstores in Modesto and Hughson, said that with the warm weather this fall, not many customers have had runny noses and sniffles. At his store on Crows Landing Road in south Modesto, he fills six to eight prescriptions a day for anti-viral drugs, most for flu patients given prescriptions at hospital emergency rooms, he said.
The Modesto store also fills a lot of prescriptions for antibiotics to treat flu sufferers who have bronchitis or other secondary infections.
"Before this, we hadn't seen prescriptions for Tamiflu for years," Carranza said. "I think people are getting scared and going to the emergency rooms."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.