By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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A Clallam County man who had the flu died, but Dr. Tom Locke, public health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, said flu did not appear to be the cause.
Locke had told the Clallam County Board of Health this week that “we’re probably two to three weeks away from the peak” of flu season in Western Washington.
“It’s likely that influenza will stay circulating in the community until sometime in March,” he added.
Infection control specialists at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles told him Wednesday there have been a growing number of flu-related admissions to the emergency room and intensive care unit.
“It’s looking to them like we could be at the peak now,” Locke said, adding that he has no figures about hospitalizations.
As of last Friday, 381 laboratory-confirmed influenza cases were reported statewide, with 42 in Clallam and Jefferson counties alone.
According to the state Department of Health, there were 19 confirmed influenza-associated deaths at last count.
It wasn’t clear whether that number included the Clallam County man in his 60s who died recently with the flu and another life-threatening condition.
“Influenza appeared to be incidental,” Locke said.
“There can be deaths that are clearly linked to influenza, but sometimes it’s not as clear. You can die of influenza and you can die with influenza.”
Nearly all of the cases reported were H1N1 swine flu, which became a pandemic in 2009.
“We weren’t predicting that,” Locke told the Clallam County health board.
“The conventional wisdom had been that we would have a mix of several different types of influenza.”
H1N1 tends to affects young people at a higher rate than those who were exposed to a similar flu strain in the 1960s.
“That’s still holding true, but all ages are being affected by this,” Locke said.
“The only good thing about the H1N1 strain is the mortality rate tends to be lower.”
As of Friday, Clallam County had 30 confirmed flu cases, 28 of which were H1N1, this winter. Those cases affected patients ranging between 8 and 83 years.
Jefferson County had 12 confirmed cases at last count.
OMC is using a more sophisticated testing system for influenza than other hospitals and doctor’s offices in the area, Locke said.
Flu activity is considered to be widespread and moderately intense in Western Washington.
In surrounding Oregon and Idaho, the flu is both widespread and highly intense.
“And that’s likely what we will see here,” Locke told the health board.
“So it’s going to get worse before it gets better, and usually what that means is hospitals are at census and we see a definite increase in hospitalization. And, unfortunately, with mortality.”
Locke cautioned that flu statistics reveal the “tip of the iceberg” because most cases go unreported.
“Just based on mathematical modeling, we would expect that in an average flu year, mortality for influenza would be about nine cases per 100,000 population,” Locke said.
“That would be six people in Clallam County, and that would be 680 people in Washington state. That’s the true mortality. It’s just most of those don’t get recognized as flu associated deaths.”
As public health officer, part of Locke’s job is to declare the start of flu season in Clallam and Jefferson counties, which he did on Jan. 3.
After the declaration, health care workers who haven’t had a flu shot are required to wear a mask around their patients.
“One of the problems with influenza is if you get it, you can shed the virus for several days before you know you’re sick,” Locke said.
“With each passing year, flu vaccinations for health care workers is becoming more and more of a mandate. Currently we’re getting very high rates in the hospitals, in excess of 95 percent.”
John Beitzel, Clallam County Board of Health member and Olympic Medical Center commissioner, said the vaccination rate at OMC “rose dramatically in the last few years.”
“I think a lot of that has to do with recognizing the severity of the problem,” Beitzel said.
Flu shots, which are readily available at pharmacies throughout the North Olympic Peninsula, are the “single best way to protect against influenza,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at email@example.com.