Two more Kern County patients died of suspected influenza on Friday as the California Department of Public Health reported an increase in flu cases across the state.
Seventy-four people have been hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in Kern County this flu season, and 11 have apparently died of the disease, according to the Kern County Public Health Services Department.
The department did not disclose the age or gender of the two people who most recently died, but said all of the local fatalities were patients age 22 to 62 years old, and most were in their 40s.
Seventeen of the local cases serious enough to warrant hospitalization were confirmed to be the H1N1 strain of the disease, which disproportionately affects young and middle-aged people. H1N1 has been blamed for five of the 11 deaths.
Of all the patients admitted to local hospitals as of Thursday, only six had been vaccinated for the flu.
Doctors recommend flu shots for anyone age 6 months or older. Shots are available at public health offices and many pharmacies.
"We are clearly in the midst of what appears to be an earlier-peaking, severe flu season, and I encourage everyone who has not yet gotten a flu vaccination to do so. The influenza vaccine remains the most effective way to protect yourself from the flu," said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health.
Across California, there were 45 confirmed flu deaths as of last Saturday, including two children. That's up from 38 deaths the previous week.
It's not yet known if this season is going to be worse than last year, but it's certainly clear that this flu season kicked off early, said Dr. Gilberto Chavez, deputy director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the California Department of Public Health.
"It started sooner, and is more severe," he said.
What's more, the state's figures are likely conservative. California Public Health had only one death recorded for Kern County because that case had been officially confirmed by laboratory tests.
The 11 local deaths the county has disclosed include "all influenza-like illnesses," which sometimes test negative for the flu later, said Kern Public Health Services spokeswoman Kim Rodriguez.
"Counties can choose to release numbers at any point that they feel it is needed to raise the level of consciousness of residents to what is happening in their community," she said. "Kern tries to be as pro-active as we can to make sure our residents have the information they need to protect themselves and their loved ones."