Fresno County reported a sixth influenza-related death Friday, adding to an increasingly deadly flu season that health officials say is striking early and hard.
In the central San Joaquin Valley, there have been 13 deaths from flu complications this winter: Fresno County has had six, Kings and Merced counties have had three each and Tulare County has had one.
Fresno County's latest flu victim was a man in his 40s who had chronic health problems.
Statewide, 45 deaths were reported through Jan. 11 and 50 remain to be investigated, the state said Friday. Two of the deaths were infants and occurred in Los Angeles and San Mateo counties.
The state lags behind the county in flu-death reports, and the latest count does not include the deaths in Fresno and Tulare counties and shows only two deaths for Merced and Kings counties each.
Even so, more deaths have been reported by the state so far this year than by the same time last year, when only five were reported, said Dr. Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist and deputy director of the Center for Infectious Diseases.
"So far, this appears to be a pretty severe season in terms of looking at mortality as a measure of the severity," Chavez said.
California began requiring hospitals to report influenza-related deaths for people who are younger than 65 in 2009 with the appearance of H1N1, a novel influenza A strain. That flu season, 607 adults and children died statewide from flu complications. Nationally, only the reporting of influenza-related pediatric deaths is mandatory.
All the flu deaths in the Valley this winter have been associated with H1N1, and the strain is widespread statewide, which could explain the high death rate, Chavez said. "When H1N1 predominates there appears to be more fatalities," he said. "It appears to be a much more deadly strain."
The flu vaccine includes protection against H1N1 and Chavez issued a plea: "Please take charge of your health and get vaccinated."
Counties have plenty of vaccine and flu-shot clinics have been busy this week. Fresno County health officials said the clinic at 1221 Fulton Mall will have extended hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, remaining open until 6 p.m.
Elsewhere Friday, the Tulare County Sheriff's Department canceled weekend visiting at its four jail facilities to prevent the spread of the flu.
The sheriff's department has 10 women and two men with flu-like symptoms who are being cared for in jail infirmaries, Capt. Keith Douglass said.
One inmate with a confirmed case of the flu was hospitalized last week but has since returned to the jail, Douglass said.
About 70% of the jail population has been vaccinated, he said. "So we're confident we're only going to see very small pockets" of flu cases.
Fresno County has had one inmate death associated with H1N1. On Thursday, 12 men and one woman had flu-like symptoms and were isolated from the jail population. Jail officials could not be reached Friday.
Valley State Prison in Chowchilla had 13 inmates with flu-like symptoms Friday, said Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for California Correctional Health Care Services. The inmates have been isolated, she said. Visiting has not been restricted at state prisons, said Luis Patino, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
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