County health officials announced two deaths early last week as a result of the H1N1 "swine flu" virus. The deaths - a middle-age woman and an elderly woman - bring to five the number of fatalities reported this year in Contra Costa as a result of the virus.
County Director of Communicable Disease Francie Wise said that in both cases, the women had pre-existing health conditions that were a factor in the deaths.
"Of the cases that we've had hospitalized and have tracked, about 60 percent of those people have had some other conditions, one of the conditions being pregnancy," she explained.
Several of the cases that required hospitalization and extended treatment were of people who suffer from asthma or other conditions related to the cardio-vascular system.
"The major one is asthma," Wise stated. "People who have asthma are very sensitive to other respiratory diseases as well."
Currently the number of newly reported cases in both Contra Costa County and the state of California seems to be declining. Wise said Kaiser Northern and Southern Cal is reporting fewer new cases of the virus.
"We're seeing less submissions in our lab for testing requests. I think people have started treating it pretty much like the flu and they're staying at home if they're sick. But I also think there's less flu in the community right now," she offered.
The health department is currently seeing around six to 12 cases per week of H1N1. Of those cases, the majority are returning a positive result for the virus. According to Wise, that's because at this time of the year H1N1 is the only type of flu they are seeing.
The decline in new cases being reported does not mean that the situation has stabilized or that the virus is going away.
"Whether or not the virus is receding is an unanswered question. That's why we're looking at the southern hemisphere," Wise said. "Cases in Argentina and other countries in the southern hemisphere are continuing. It doesn't seem to be changing but there's still a lot of information we don't have."
One of those unanswered questions is how effective drugs like Tamiflu are in dealing with H1N1. Wise said scientists are gauging how resistant the virus is to the drug and whether there are other cures that might be more effective.
Part of the reason that there is so much speculation and discussion of the virus is because it's not a typical flu bug, which springs up with different strains every few years.
"Not like this they don't," Wise cautioned. "Usually viruses drift a little or shift a little in what they look like, but this is one we haven't seen before." She added, "We call it the flu but it's structured differently than what we've seen before."
Health officials will be keeping an eye on the strain as the fall begins, giving way to the normal flu season of October through early April.
For the moment though, the advice is to continue on with standard precautions such as washing hands and not sharing drinks. Wise said if a person experiences mild flu symptoms, they should simply stay home. She said it is only necessary to be tested for the H1N1 virus if the symptoms are severe enough to require hospitalization.