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SALT LAKE CITY — The first two people in Utah have died from influenza for the 2013-14 flu season, according to the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Both people were adults between the ages of 35 and 64 years old who were living in Salt Lake County. They died during the last half of December, according to Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp.
“These deaths serve as a tragic reminder to all of us that influenza can be a serious disease for anyone,” said County Epidemiologist Ilene Risk in a statement. “I can’t stress strongly enough that everyone over the age of six months old should get a flu shot every year to prevent illness and to avoid passing the virus to others.”
Layton man Chuck Collett is staying by his wife's side in the ICU in McKay Dee Hospital in Odgen. Kerry Collett, 50, has been hospitalized for 8 days so far as she fights the flu virus.
Chuck said Kerry is active and healthy, so he never expected she would end up in the hospital with the flu. He said they have had flu shots in the past, but not this year.
Kerry started out with average flu symptoms. Their doctor told them to keep an eye out for worsening symptoms, so when they got worse, she was admitted to the hospital Dec. 26.
"Friday morning, she was in intensive care and she's been there since," Chuck said. "Really low point, when they put her in ICU. When they intubate you, they put you on sedation and paralytics so that you don't fight the tube that you're getting breath from."
Chuck described a slow and grueling recovery.
"She's improving. There's still a lot of fluid in her lungs, there's still really coarse sounds when she's breathing," he said.
This season over 150 people have been hospitalized for the flu in Salt Lake County so far, with most cases involving the H1N1 virus. Only a small percentage of those patients reportedly have had flu shots.
Although the two flu-related deaths were in adults, Rupp said typically children under the age of four and adults over the age of 65 are most vulnerable.
It is unknown whether the people who died had any other medical conditions or if they had received flu vaccinations for this season.
Rupp said the flu season is notoriously difficult to predict, but that the number of people hospitalized this year seems to be on the same track as the 2012-13 season.
“This week and next week is traditionally when we see the very highest number of flu-related hospitalizations," he said. "That is notably because of people getting together, being in close contact and having gatherings with lots of people, which increases transmission.”
Flu season typically begins in late September and lasts through March and sometimes later, but the length and dates of the season are unpredictable from year to year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state saw its first confirmed case on Sept. 29, 2013. Someone under 18 was hospitalized in Utah in October, and more than 150 people have been hospitalized throughout the state from then until Dec. 21, according to the latest data available from the Utah Department of Health.
In Salt Lake County, there have been at least 150 hospitalized flu victims so far this season, with the vast majority resulting from the H1N1 virus, according to the county health department.
These deaths serve as a tragic reminder to all of us that influenza can be a serious disease for anyone.
The best thing people can do to protect themselves from influenza is to get a flu shot, Rupp said.
“It’s not too late, though it can take the body up to two weeks to really fully build protection in antibodies," he said. "Get it now and you’ll be protected for the rest of the winter.”
Felice Jimenez wants to be in the labor and delivery room when her first grandson is born next month, even if it means getting a shot or two in the arm.
"They tell me I need to be protected," the 33-year-old mother of eight said Thursday.
Jimenez and two of her kids got flu shots at the Ellis R. Shipp Public Health Center to keep themselves from getting sick, but also so the new baby has a lesser chance of getting infected.
Another way to prevent getting the flu is to wash hands diligently and doing it correctly, he said. Hands should be washed for 20 to 30 seconds.
“Don’t use hand sanitizer instead of washing,” Rupp said. “It’s better than nothing, but you really need to get in there and scrub with soap.”
Those who do get sick should stay home from work or school to avoid infecting others, he said.
Contributing: Mike Anderson