CITY HALL — Flu season is hitting the country hard, and though California has largely been spared up until now, Santa Monica health professionals are preparing for the worst.
The illness has spread like wildfire through 40 states, forcing Boston to declare a public health emergency.
At least 20 children have died, and although there are no official counts on the number of adult deaths, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that 24,000 people die each year of the flu.
The most common strain so far is H3N2, an infectious version that tends to make people very sick, said Denise Sur, the director of the Family Medicine Program and chief of staff at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.
Fortunately, epidemiologists included that strain in this year’s flu vaccine, which, according to the CDC, is roughly 60 percent effective, on par with previous years’ inoculations.
“It’s amazing to me when they pick these they get it right as often as they do,” Sur said.
The rapid spread of the illness so early in the traditional flu season — which extends through March — suggests that this year may counterbalance 2012’s unusually light flu season.
“This is a very good year to get the flu vaccine,” Sur said.
Over at Ocean Villa, an assisted living home for seniors, the staff have taken that to heart.
Their residents received a high-dose vaccine made specifically for those over the age of 65 in October, and are taking multivitamins, particularly vitamin C, said Raushana Scott, a licensed vocational nurse at Ocean Villa.
If a resident does get ill, they are kept in isolation and staff takes extra precautions to prevent the spread of the illness, which causes a greater impact on the elderly and young children.
“We do a lot of hand washing, use a lot of gloves,” Scott said. “We use mask and gowns if we have to.”
Over at the Venice Family Clinic on Pico Boulevard, medical professionals have been aggressive in getting every patient over 6 months old vaccinated, said Karen Lamp, the medical director at the clinic.
The clinic serves people under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $22,340 for a single person or $46,100 for a family of four.
The flu can have extra complications for those with chronic illnesses like diabetes or obesity, she said.
“Those are the patients we really like to target. They’re more likely to end up hospitalized,” Lamp said.
The clinic still has over 1,000 doses of the vaccine, but there’s never any left at the end of the flu season, she said.
Although getting the vaccine is a help, both in preventing the illness and lessening its severity if you get it, people need to do more than that to avoid the flu this year.
Sur recommends washing hands under warm water, and coughing or sneezing into the crook of the arm to prevent transmission.
The flu isn’t the only thing going around this year. According to the AP, the norovirus — commonly called “stomach flu” — is also impacting different areas, as is the common cold.
That can complicate flu statistics because people don’t get tested for the flu. Instead, doctors usually declare them as having “flu-like symptoms,” Sur said.
Flu and cold symptoms can be somewhat similar, and often vary in severity, according to the CDC.
The flu tends to involve fever, body aches, extreme tiredness and a dry cough. People with colds often have runny or stuffy noses and don’t end up with medical complications like pneumonia, bacterial infections or hospitalization.
Sometimes you can do everything in your power to prevent getting sick, but it happens anyway. In that case, Sur hopes that people will do the right thing and stay home.
Those infected with the flu can spread the illness to others, including those vulnerable young and old populations. It’s recommended that people stay out of work for five days to avoid infecting others, Sur said.
“That’s the tougher part, not infecting others in work or school,” she said.
It’s a problem Lora Morn, the nurse coordinator for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, sees a lot during flu season.
“Some parents don’t want to keep their kids home from school,” Morn said.
Parents are concerned that their kids will miss too much class, particularly in honors or advanced placement courses, and get behind. Other parents have to work and have difficulty breaking away from their jobs to come get the kids from school or stay home with them.
“I have had to speak with people’s bosses to let them know it’s me who’s requesting the parent to pick up the child because they’re sick,” Morn said.
She suggests keeping kids out for one day after the flu fever breaks naturally, without the use of Tylenol or other fever aids.
There’s nothing out there to cure the flu, which is a virus and can’t be combated with antibiotics. Although people clamor for Tamiflu, an antiviral drug that slows the spread of the flu virus through the body, it’s a bad idea to spread it around, Sur said.
“We do not give it to the general population for the same reason we don’t give out antibiotics,” Sur said. “If we gave everyone Tamiflu, the virus would build a resistance and we would find ourselves without an effective treatment.”
So stay clean, stay healthy and if not, stay home.