Four people have died from influenza infections, and a fifth flu-related death is suspected and is pending confirmation, the Fresno County Department of Public Health reported Thursday afternoon.
The first victim died from influenza Type A. All four victims were age 60 or older, a health department spokesman said. He could not provide their genders.
The deaths occurred in November and December, the spokesman said. He could not explain why the deaths had not been reported before Thursday.
“Our heartfelt condolences go out to the friends and families of these individuals,” Dr. Rais Vohra, the county’s interim health officer, said in a news release. “With respiratory infections increasing this time of year, it is more important than ever for people to get a flu vaccine, as well as any updated COVID-19 vaccine, if they have not already done so.”
Dr. John Zweifler, a medical consultant with the county Public Health Department, said this year’s flu season so far is similar to pre-COVID seasons. The number of flu cases dropped during the pandemic as people remained in isolation to avoid COVID, he said.
Fresno County issued an alert earlier this week asking people not to come to emergency departments for non-emergency medical issues to ease the strain on local hospitals.
The rising number of flu and COVID-19 infections that can lead to complications are fueling an increase in hospitalizations. And that’s happening in a region that was already short of hospital and ER beds and, with the closure of Madera Community Hospital, now even shorter, Zweifler said.
The county previously issued a public health order requiring flu shots for all health care workers, he said.
“So we already are starting behind the eight ball. You throw in the closure of Madera Hospital and the fact that our populations are generally socioeconomically challenged and have more health-related challenges, and a bad respiratory season on top of it, and it’s all a recipe for emergency rooms and hospitals that are busting at the seams,” he said.
The best way to ensure the safety of family and friends is to stay away from gatherings if you feel ill, and to wear a mask in crowded places to protect yourself and others, Zweifler said.
With Christmas in a few days, there will be a large number of family gatherings and more opportunities for viruses to spread, Zweifler said.
“I think it’s really important to tell our audience, just remind them that respiratory illnesses are spread when we talk, we sneeze or cough, we sing, we play instruments. It’s a respiratory illness, so it’s spread through the air,” he said. “You’re more likely to encounter it in crowded indoor settings, which is why we see more of these during the winter season, because we’re more indoors and crowded.”
Flu Shots Still Available
County public health officials are encouraging all people older than 6 months to get vaccinated, which is particularly important for people at risk for more serious outcomes such as adults older than 65, children younger than 5, pregnant women, and those with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Although the flu vaccine does not prevent all cases, it is the best defense against potentially serious complications. It takes about two weeks after the injection for protection to be developed.
Anyone with respiratory symptoms, which can include cough, sore throat, sneezing, nasal congestion, fevers, and body aches should stay home and test for flu and COVID-19. Those who test positive should contact their health provider and ask about prescription treatments.
As of Dec. 9, there had been 143 flu-associated deaths in adults ages 18 to 64 and 14 flu-associated deaths in children up to age 17 across the nation, the health department reported. Statewide, 12 adults and one child have died due to the flu.
The Fresno County Department of Public Health Immunization Program is still offering flu vaccines for the 2023-24 season. Call (559) 600-3550 for information on where to obtain a flu vaccine. They also may be available at physicians’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, and at special flu vaccination events.
High-risk people also are encouraged to get the RSV vaccine.
For more information on the flu report, visit the 2023-2034 weekly influenza webpage.