Kern County has seen the deadliest flu season in five years, and data suggests it could be a while before the season winds down.
As of this week, eight people have died due to the flu this season and 22 people have been hospitalized, a large jump from two deaths and 11 hospitalizations last season. This year still has a ways to reach the 2013-14 season, when 11 people died from complications related to flu.
While the flu season typically peaks around December and January, which was also the case this year, flu-related emergency room visits are trending back up, with flu and flu-like illnesses making up 8.5 percent of total ER visits at the end of February and beginning of March.
“All the surveillance data is demonstrating we definitely have high flu circulating in our community still,” said Michelle Corson, spokeswoman for the county Public Health Services department. “I can’t say with confidence that we’ve hit our peak yet.”
Corson said at this rate, the flu season could last through April and even into May, which she said hasn’t happened in several years. A typical flu season ends in March.
According to county data, flu-related ER visits steadily increased from the start of the season in October until it peaked at near 7 percent around the end of December. In January, visits dropped about 2 percent. However, toward the end of January and early February, they started climbing back up again.
Now, flu-related ER visits are the highest they’ve been all season.
“There have been seasons in the past where we see a second peak, and that seems to be what we’re seeing now,” she said.
While the county has seen more flu deaths this year, ER visits have only recently begun to surpass last season’s numbers. Why have there been more deaths despite fewer ER visits? Corson said there’s really not a good answer.
“The flu is unpredictable,” she said. “You never know season-to-season how it will impact people. You just know that it holds true that it can be very serious and unfortunately deadly.”
The 2016-17 flu season was a particularly bad one for Kern County. At its peak, 10 percent of ER visits in late December and early January were flu related. However, flu cases began winding down in February, which hasn’t happened this season.
Dr. Les Burson, emergency department medical director for Memorial Hospital, said the hospital has seen more children than adults needing treatment this season, largely due to contagious, flu-like respiratory illnesses.
Out of the more than 300 patients the ER has been seeing per day in February and March, Burson said about half of them have been children, and many of those were there due to flu-like illness.
“We’re seeing a fair amount of flu, but it’s still not as much as last year,” he said. “The volume of ER visits is off the wall, but it’s not just for flu.”
Kim Hernandez, epidemiologist for the Public Health department, said there are multiple strains of the flu going around and that it’s not uncommon for people to get one strain earlier in the season and catch another one at a later point in the season.
“It’s possible to get the flu twice in a single season,” she said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that.”
Burson said he is surprised to see the flu being this strong so late in the season.
“I haven’t seen it happen this late before,” he said. “It’s seems pretty odd that it’s happening like that.”
Corson encourages the public to continue to safeguard themselves with the usual measures against the flu, such as getting a flu shot and washing your hands often.
“The weather may be getting nicer, but people still need to be vigilant,” she said. “The flu is still actively circulating, so we don’t want people to let up on important ways to protect themselves.”