Three more Spokane County residents have died from swine flu, and a death in North Idaho also is being investigated as a possible H1N1 case, public health officials announced Thursday.
Two of the Spokane County cases and the North Idaho case involve otherwise healthy people. It is the fourth swine-flu death of a Spokane County resident since September.
“Every death from influenza is tragic and a reminder of how this virus can have very serious consequences,” said Dr. Joel McCullough, health officer for Spokane Regional Health District. “Now is the time for people to be vigilant in preventing the spread of the flu and for people in high-risk groups to get vaccinated.”
Washington and Idaho are among the 37 states with widespread cases of the so-called swine flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitalizations and deaths from the disease have risen steadily in the last couple of weeks, and patients in the Inland Northwest have flooded clinics and doctor’s offices for their regular flu vaccines this week – even before swine flu vaccinations begin.
“We have been expecting that the virus would pick up once school started and we would begin to see it spreading significantly,” said Julie Graham, spokeswoman for the Spokane Regional Health District. “That is what’s happening.”
Thousands of residents have made appointments with the health district next week for the vaccine, and the health district’s family vaccination clinic planned for Oct. 24 was moved Thursday from the Central Spokane YMCA to the Spokane Arena to accommodate bigger crowds, Graham said.
“We’re really hoping that people will come to that clinic,” Graham said.
Though medical authorities say most cases of the flu can be handled by staying at home, the recent deaths highlight the need for people to be aware of the most urgent signs of the flu: difficulty breathing; pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen; sudden dizziness; confusion; severe or persistent vomiting; and the easing of flu symptoms followed by a return with a fever and worse cough.
In children, emergency warning signs also include rapid breathing, bluish or gray skin color, not drinking enough fluids, not waking up or interacting with others; and extreme irritability.
Anyone experiencing those symptoms should seek medical care, the health district says.
Those are signs that the illness is outpacing the body’s ability to fight it, said Bill Edstrom, an epidemiologist with the health district. As the illness becomes severe, it moves from the upper respiratory system – the nose and throat – into the lungs and lower respiratory system, making breathing difficult and reducing the oxygen a patient is taking in. As it progresses, it begins weakening other organs and can lead to complications like infections and other illnesses.
“The body starts shutting down,” Edstrom said. “The kidneys might go. Other organs also might fail, and eventually the heart would fail.”
The three Spokane County deaths include: A woman in her 40s who had undisclosed “underlying health conditions”; a woman in her 60s with no underlying health conditions; and a man in his 40s without other health problems.
Graham said the two people in their 40s died in their homes; the 60-year-old was hospitalized. She did not know the dates of the deaths.
Meanwhile, health officials in Idaho are investigating the death of an “apparently healthy” Post Falls man in his 30s to see if it was related to the H1N1 virus, the Panhandle Health District said.
The man had been suffering influenza symptoms, and tests are being conducted at the Washington state Health Department in Olympia.
“This individual was previously apparently healthy,” said Dr. Robert West, Kootenai County’s coroner.
If confirmed, the man’s death would be the fifth in Idaho related to the 2009 H1N1 virus since Sept. 1.
Dr. Robert Benedetti, medical director at the Rockwood Clinic, said that all the attention on H1N1 has motivated patients to take the flu seriously – whether it’s the seasonal version or this swine flu. Rockwood’s annual stock of 10,000 doses of vaccine for the regular flu, which would typically last all winter, are nearly gone, he said.
“It’s off the charts,” he said. “I think people are finally, appropriately concerned about protecting themselves from influenza. I think that’s a good thing. We just don’t have enough of a supply” of vaccines.
Like other medical providers in the community, his clinic is waiting for word from the health district about when it will get the swine flu vaccine and how much they’ll get.
“They told us it’s going to be tens of thousands of doses,” he said. “We’re not sure when and where those tens of thousands of doses will be coming.”
Graham said the distribution of the vaccines by the federal government has been unpredictable so far, and so it’s hard to say how many doses might be made available to medical providers and how quickly.
“It really depends on when the vaccine becomes available,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a moving target.”