The hospital at Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley is among the local providers logging data on flu cases that is sent to the Imperial County Department of Public Health. | Corissa Ibarra photo
IMPERIAL VALLEY — Observations and official monitoring as of Feb. 1 show the number of influenza cases in Imperial County has well more than doubled in the 2019-20 flu season over the same period a year ago, a health official said.
“The activity here in
Imperial County, we’re seeing the proportion of cases with influenza greater
than last year,” said Marian Fierro, an epidemiologist in charge of the flu
surveillance programs for the county Public Health Department.
She spoke on Feb. 12.
Some 369 cases have come
back positive for flu, or about 37 percent of the suspected cases tested from
the start of flu season on Sept. 29 to what is known as county surveillance week
5 (Jan. 26 to Feb. 1), Fierro said. That compares to 143 positive flu cases during
the same period in the 2018-19 flu season.
The numbers come from
specific monitoring points and do not represent a precise total of flu cases in
the county, officials explained while declining to estimate what an exact total
El Centro Regional
Medical Center physician Andrew LaFree said he is seeing the impact first hand.
“I’m in the ER right now,
and already had three flu cases today,” LaFree said Feb. 13 over the phone from
the hospital’s Emergency Department of which he is chairperson.
“It was bad two years
ago; last year was not bad, but this year is bad again,” he explained.
January was the busiest
month for the El Centro ER since December 2017, and it’s “almost all
attributable to flu,” LaFree added, noting during the winter about 50 percent
of all ER traffic is due to flu or suspected flu.
Flu cases are beginning
to “taper down a bit; the cases peaked in mid-January. But we’re still seeing a
bunch of it,” the emergency doctor explained.
Meanwhile, this flu
season has been particularly deadly for young flu patients across the nation,
with 92 children dead from flu, according to Feb. 8 data released from the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 14. That is the highest
total at this point in the season in a decade.
Most of those deaths have
been attributed to an unusually early strain of influenza B, which tends to hit
children and the elderly hardest, according to the CDC. A total of 62 pediatric
deaths have been attributed to flu-type B. That total includes the one toddler
who died from flu in December in Imperial County, according to local health
In all, five deaths from
flu have been reported in Imperial County so far this season, according to a
Feb. 14 press release from Public Health. The December toddler death had been
reported previously; the other four—a young adult, two middle-age and one
senior—all came in 2020, the county reported.
Five deaths were reported
for the entirety of the 2018-19 flu season in Imperial County, according to the
press release. There are still 33 weeks left in the current flu season, Public
Health spokesperson Maria Peinado stated in a Feb. 14 email.
Explaining What is Being
On par with the rest of
the nation, local health officials have seen a particularly strong wave of flu-type
B start earlier this year and peak around December, before being overtaken by a
surge of flu-type A cases, which include the H1N1 virus formerly known as swine
Usually, type A hits
first and type B strikes later in the season, Fierro said.
“This year we started
seeing B in mid-November and peak in December. Normally, we see a peak of A (in
February) and then a peak of B,” Fierro said. “We have never seen a peak of B
higher than a peak of A like we’re seeing now. … Even at CDC, they can’t
Although the number of
positive cases has doubled, that doesn’t mean the strains are any more virulent
or deadly this year than last, officials added.
Testing is up at ERs and
clinics, and LaFree said more people are showing up to the hospital to have
their respiratory-type ailments checked because of all the media attention
being garnered by the deadly coronavirus outbreak that began recently in China.
itself a lot like the conventional flu, including coughing and fevers, Imperial
County Public Health Officer Stephen Munday said recently.
People are coming into
the ER who might “normally ride it out,” LaFree said, referring to their respiratory
Opinions from state
health officials appear to concur with local assessments.
“Most influenza surveillance indicators are higher
this season than they were last season,” Wendy Hopkins, a state Department of Public
Health spokesperson, reported in a Feb. 13 email.
“However, both seasons fall within moderate
severity levels relative to other influenza seasons. Since this influenza
season is not yet over, it is possible that the severity level could change as
the season continues to progress,” she added.
More on the Season’s
Locally, three who died
from flu had underlying health conditions, the county press releases stated. It
is unknown if any had been vaccinated, because that information was not
reported, it adds.
Munday revealed during a
previous interview the toddler had died from flu-type B, but county officials
did not provide what strain killed the other four.
Since the Sept. 29 start
of the flu season, there have been 266 flu-related deaths reported in
California, according to state Public Health.
“The 2019-2020 influenza season in California has
been similar to what is being seen in other parts of the United States,” Hopkins
stated in response to a question about whether the state has any factors that
would make it worse, such as warmer weather or more visitors.
The flu has killed an
estimated 14,000 people in the U.S. this season, with about 26 million infected
and 250,000 hospitalized, according to Feb. 8 data from the CDC.
CDC was to soon release specific
data on the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine but stated the four
antiviral medications have proven more than 99 percent effective. However, that
would be news to ECRMC’s LaFree.
“Anecdotally, from what
I’ve heard … the vaccine’s not as effective this year,” he said. “That’s one reason I’ve heard it’s been
so bad this year.”
Epidemiologist Fierro did
not agree, saying this season’s vaccine contains two types of B strain and two
types of A strain, including those that are responsible for the high positive
cases this year (B Victoria and A H1N1).
The vaccine is not going
to be 100 percent effective, and even when it is working, its efficacy is about
50 percent, Fierro explained.
The vaccine’s true
measure is that people are “not getting too sick” and that the elderly and very
young are only getting the flu at “mild and moderate” levels, she stressed.
The vaccine is primarily
geared toward aiding a “herd immunity,” or the potential for those who are vaccinated to
help prevent a virus from spreading to the minority of residents who can’t get
vaccinated for medical reasons, Fierro said.
Behind the Numbers, County Surveillance
With 33 weeks to go in
the surveillance season, it’s not yet known how high the local numbers will get,
Peinado stated. So far, 992 suspected cases of flu have been tested as of Feb.
1, with 37 percent coming back positive (the 369 cases reported so far).
For a wider perspective,
188 positive cases of flu were detected, or 18.3 percent of the 1,023 cases
tested, during the entire 2018-19 flu season, according to Peinado.
Some 452 positive cases,
or 30.2 percent of the 1,498 cases tested, were found during the 2017-18 flu
season, Peinado reported.
“We have one of the best
reporting programs in the country. We send more cases and capture more cases
than many other places,” Fierro explained.
The county works closely
with the CDC, she added, and sends all its suspected cases to the Naval Health
Research Center Lab in San Diego from two separate surveillance programs
through which the county draws its cumulative totals.
The larger of the two
programs involves what is called “Influenza-Like Illness” monitoring through
three Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo clinics in Brawley, Calexico and El Centro,
and the emergency departments from ECRMC and Pioneers Memorial Healthcare
District, Fierro explained.
The smaller program tests
and tracks “Severe Acute Respiratory Infection” cases from the two ERs only.
That program isn’t solely for flu, however. Fierro said it also tracks such
illnesses as the common cold.
So far, 347 of the
positive cases this year have been found through the ILI testing and 22 cases
through the SARI testing.
Although it does not
track positive flu cases from other physicians and local clinics, Fierro said
county health officials regularly communicate with other local healthcare
providers to recommend they report their own data to the CDC on a regular
Still in Play
Health officials across
all localities agree getting vaccinated is still essential, as well as adhering
to the protocols recommended by health professionals to limit the spread on the
CDC recommends that
everyone six months and older receive a flu vaccine every year.
Flu shots are available
at the county Public Health Department on a walk-in basis during regular hours
for $5. Additionally, the flu vaccine is available with local physicians,
community clinics, including Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo Inc. and local
pharmacies, according to the county.
To stop the spread of flu
and other respiratory illnesses, it is recommended people:
· Stay home while
sick and limit contact with others
· Cover your cough
or sneeze with your sleeve or disposable tissue
· Wash hands
frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water, or use an alcohol-based
· Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth