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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Dr. Joshua Tobias, an ER physician at San Joaquin Community Hospital, has seen an increase of patients seeking help for flu symptoms at the hospital.

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Dr. Les Burson examines Ruby Thomas from Caliente, who came to Memorial Hospital's ER because of flu-like symptoms she'd been experiencing. Burson diagnosed her with bronchitis.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Dr. Les Burson questions Ruby Thomas from Caliente about flu-like symptoms she has been having. Burson said 30 percent of people coming to Dignity Health's three hospital's ERs have been to seek help for flu symptoms.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Ruby Thomas of Caliente and two other members of her family came to the ER at Memorial Hospital with nagging flu-like symptoms. After being examined by Dr. Les Burson it was determined she did not have the flu.

The flu sweeping through Kern County claimed a sixth victim Saturday while hospital emergency rooms remained clogged with people suffering flu-like symptoms.

Forty-two people have been hospitalized since Christmas from the flu, 29 of those in intensive care. Of those, 22 have required ventilators.

A health official said Sunday that the strain of influenza sweeping the county has proven to be more serious than usual.

Denise Smith, director of disease control at the Kern County Public Health Department, said those usually most vulnerable to the flu are the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic illness such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

But the six victims thus far, she said, three men and three women, "have been reasonably healthy people" and all between the ages of 30 and 62.

Two victims died in early January, three died Friday and a woman in her early 40s died Saturday.

"This particular strain has proven ... it attacks middle-aged people," Smith said. "And that's what we're seeing this season.

"They did have some underlying (medical) conditions, but most (people) do. The alarming part of this is that it hit quick."

At Dignity Health's three Bakersfield hospitals -- Bakersfield Memorial and the two Mercy Hospitals -- about 500 people are being seen daily in the emergency rooms, a third of them for viral respiratory illnesses such as the flu and bronchitis, said Dr. Les Burson, Dignity Health's medical director.

"The numbers are just inundating patient services. The flu is peaking right now," Burson said.

Sunday, Burson treated about 50 people in the Bakersfield Memorial emergency room. One of them was Ruby Thomas.

Thomas, 60, had driven from Caliente with her two teenage grandchildren who live with her. All of them were complaining of flu-like symptoms.

For the past week Thomas, a smoker, had been complaining of a bad cough with green phlegm, sore throat, achiness between her shoulder blades and chills. She said her ribs hurt from coughing so much.

"This is worse than I've ever had before," said Thomas, who has not gotten a flu shot. "Until we get better we're going to keep giving it to everyone."

Burson, though, decided she had bronchitis, not the flu. An inhaler and cough syrup were prescribed.

"Is it bronchitis? Is it flu? Is it a virus? It's hard to differentiate," Burson said.

But he, along with other health officials, stressed the importance of getting a flu shot.

The county's Public Health Services Department offers flu shots Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. They are also available at some pharmacies and from many doctor's offices.

"The message is very clear," said the Public Health Department's Smith. "Anyone is at risk, and people need to get the flu shots."

While the vaccine can take up to two weeks to take effect, it can mitigate the severity of the flu during the rest of the season, which runs into late February.

At San Joaquin Community Hospital, Dr. Joshua L. Tobias, an emergency room doctor, said the number of people coming to the ER has increased since the end of December, with up to 40 percent flu-related.

"The flu is always serious," he said. "This year it seems to be a little more prevalent."

With typical flu-like symptoms -- fever, chills, body aches -- it's not necessary to come to the emergency room, Tobias said. Resting, drinking plenty of fluids and taking acetaminophen such as Tylenol will be enough to reduce pain and ease fever.

But trouble breathing or profound body weakness is a sign to come in.