Two homeless Santa Clara County men have become the first non-elderly Bay Area residents to die from the flu this season as the state continues to experience widespread influenza activity.
The unidentified men, both age 58, died on Jan. 11 and 13. Few details about their lives were available, but each had other health problems, said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the Santa Clara County health officer.
"This population is much more vulnerable," Fenstersheib said Friday.
All told, California has had 14 flu-related deaths so far this season, including a child between the ages of 5 and 9. Nationwide, 45 children have died.
No one knows how many elderly people have died from the virus because such deaths do not have to be reported. But seniors have been hit the hardest and hospitalizations and deaths remain high, federal health leaders said in a Friday report.
A 98-year-old woman in Santa Clara County became the Bay Area's first known flu fatality this season, health leaders announced last month.
Although illnesses have begun to taper off in the East, they continue to rise sharply in the West. California is now one of 42 states with widespread flu activity and it also is reporting high numbers of patients with aches, fevers, stuffy noses and other irksome symptoms visiting doctors.
Hospitals have had more sick people flocking to their emergency departments, Fenstersheib said. Three Santa Clara County residents were hospitalized with severe illnesses, but all survived and have been discharged.
"We haven't peaked yet," Fenstersheib said. "It's still trending upward, so there is still time and still a reason to get a flu vaccine. ... It could get worse before it gets better."
Although some pharmacies have reported spot shortages, Fenstersheib noted that vaccine is still available in many locations.
The homeless are especially vulnerable because they often have other health problems and live close to one another in tent camps or other locations where the virus can spread rapidly, said Dr. Sara Doorley, medical director of the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program.
Since learning of the two deaths, the county has stepped up its attempts to make sure as many as possible of the county's 7,000 homeless people receive a flu shot.
Vaccinations are offered free at 10 clinic locations. The county also has sent out a mobile medical unit and an outreach team to offer shots to people on the streets, near soup kitchens and among the farmworker community in Gilroy, Doorley said.
On Friday morning, more than 40 people were vaccinated, she said.
Health leaders urge the elderly and others who are at high-risk to seek treatment quickly if they develop symptoms because antivirals can help prevent more severe illnesses, but are most effective if given within the first 48 hours.
"Flu is preventable," Fenstersheib said. "We don't want to see any more deaths."
Not everyone who feels miserable has the flu, however. Fenstersheib noted that "there are a lot of other viruses floating around," including respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.
Sandy Kleffman covers health. Contact her at 510-293-2478. Follow her at Twitter.com/skleffman.