The flu season nationwide is among the worst in a decade. Hospitals in California set up tents to triage flu patients, many pharmacies ran out of flu medicines. The death toll has been unusually high.
Gabriella Chabot, a student at La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks, was among those who died of complications of the flu.
She would have turned 15 in less than a week, her father Michael Chabot posted on Facebook on Friday.
“Today I experienced the day that no parent should,” Chabot wrote. “We are heartbroken.”
In total, 163 Californians under 65 have died of the flu since October. This compares with 40 at the same time last year.
Health officials say that though the flu is still spreading, it appears cases peaked in the state several weeks ago and that fewer people are falling sick now. The death count may continue to climb though, because people often die days, if not weeks, after first contracting the flu, experts say.
Still, doctors warn that there’s now another virus circulating in California that’s sending kids and older adults to the hospital struggling to breathe and that a late wave of flu cases could be on the horizon.
“We’re hoping there’s not the second peak, but there can be,” said Dr. Andy Shen, an emergency room physician at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.
Lung Infections from the Flu in California
Many hospitals are also reporting an increase in patients with a respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. The virus is similar to a cold but can cause an infection in small airways of the lungs called bronchioles.
“Every year in the winter, there’s a period where the pediatric floors fill up with bronchiolitis cases,” Shen said.
Very young children who are having trouble breathing may need to be hospitalized, experts say. Most RSV infections go away on their own and cause only a runny nose, a fever, and sneezing. Almost everyone has had RSV by the time they are 2 years old, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’m surprised,” Ghurabi said. “If we didn’t have that testing, honestly and truly, we probably would not have caught it.”
Dr. Robert Belshe, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at Saint Louis University, said that doctors have only recently begun to realize that RSV is a significant cause of hospitalizations and mortality among the elderly. Physicians often assume older patients just have the flu.
Each year, RSV causes 14,000 deaths among adults older than 65 and 57,000 hospitalizations among children under 5, according to the CDC.
Parents who are worried about RSV should encourage good hand-washing and keep their kids away from others they know are sick, said Dr. Daniel Star, an ER doctor at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.