Fall is almost upon us, but along with cooler weather it brings a less welcome element: the start of flu season.
Flu season typically kicks off in October, but pharmacies and other businesses have already begun offering flu shots, often at no cost to those who have health insurance. The Kern County Public Health Services Department will begin offering flu shots in early October once their vaccines arrive.
“An annual flu vaccine is the first and best way to protect against the flu,” said Michelle Corson, public relations officer for KCPH. “Flu viruses are constantly changing, and an annual flu vaccine may be updated from one season to the next to protect against viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming flu season. This is the time to prepare yourself and your family.”
Corson said the department will be holding two free vaccination clinics in October to try to get more people to get a flu shot, which typically costs $9. The department will also be getting the word out starting next month with billboards, public safety announcements and other efforts.
The upcoming flu season comes after a particularly serious one less than a year ago. Two people died locally due to flu death. Michelle Placencia, a 39-year-old mother of five, died in January and was one of the youngest flu-related deaths in recent years.
Placencia’s death left her husband Garey to be a single parent, taking care of the 10-year-old son they had together, which he said has been difficult. Placencia's other children are older and no longer living at home.
“It’s been a challenge, but I do what I can to take care of my son,” he said. “We’re all adjusting to our new lives. It’s been pretty sad, but we take one day at a time.”
Placencia said his wife had waited about five days after coming down with symptoms to go to a hospital. By that time, however, he said she was septic and there wasn’t much that could be done for her. She died a day later.
Placencia said he doesn’t want other families to have to go through that.
“As soon as you start having the symptoms, make sure you go to a doctor to get you checked out just in case,” he said. “If you see anyone you know with symptoms, encourage them to get a checkup.”
Although Placencia has never gotten a flu vaccine before, he said he will be making the effort to get one this season and is also trying to get his son to do so.
Flu deaths have been relatively low the past few years, according to data from Kern County Public Health. There were two in 2016-17, one in 2015-16 and none in 2014-15. However, there were 11 deaths in 2013-14.
As for non-fatal ICU cases, this past season had the most in four years with 11 cases. The 2013-14 season had more with 23 cases. All reported cases are only for people 65 years old or younger.
“The flu can be a serious disease,” Corson said. “Flu is unpredictable – some types of the influenza virus can be more virulent than others. The best defense is the influenza vaccine, which even if it is not a perfect fit to the types of virus that may be circulating in the community, (it) provides some level of protection.”
Children, seniors, pregnant women and anyone with chronic health conditions are most at risk of having serious complications from the flu, she said.
Corson said it’s too early to tell how strong the flu is expected to be this season. No cases have been reported to Kern County Public Health since the end of the last flu season.
While Corson said the department provided more than 1,700 vaccinations last season, there are still many people who decline to get vaccinated, even if they are provided a flu shot at no cost to them.
“You’re not just protecting yourself when get a flu vaccine. You’re also protecting the most vulnerable people around you who can’t get a flu vaccine for some reason,” she said. “This is about protecting your family and your community.”