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Monday, Jan 13 2014 06:36 PM

Local flu death toll rises to seven

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    April Rose Dunlap was laid to rest at Shafter Cemetery Monday after a funeral at Trinity Lutheran Church in Wasco. She apparently died of influenza.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

On the same day that loved ones buried a 30-year-old local woman who died of influenza last week, the Kern County Public Health Services Department released new numbers showing the flu is gaining momentum locally.

April Rose Dunlap was laid to rest at Shafter Cemetery Monday after a funeral at Trinity Lutheran Church in Wasco. She died on Tuesday at Kern Medical Center.

Doctors initially thought Dunlap had pneumonia when she became ill last month, but she was diagnosed with the H1N1 strain of the virus shortly after Christmas.

That's the strain that caused an international flu pandemic in 2009 and this season has been killing or sickening an alarming number of young people.

It's late in the season, but there are still flu vaccines available at Public Health Services and at many pharmacies, said Denise Smith, the county's director of disease services.

The local supply is getting low and public health officials have re-ordered, so Smith said she strongly urges anyone 6 months or older to get a shot as soon as possible if they haven't already.

"People get sick every flu season and people die every flu season, but we're very concerned about the number of people who are seriously ill," Smith said.

Thirty-five states reported widespread influenza activity to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of the week that ended Jan. 4. That's up from 25 states the previous week.

In Kern County, the number of people hospitalized with flu-like symptoms has grown from 30 to 49 over the last six days, according to Public Health Services.

Of the 49 hospitalizations as of Monday, 14 were confirmed to be the H1N1 strand of the disease. The death toll rose by one to seven Monday.

Usually the flu is most lethal in the elderly, children, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions. H1N1 is unusual in that it disproportionately affects young and middle-aged adults.

Dunlap had been in perfect health prior to becoming ill with the flu, said her mother, Traci Rueda, at Monday's funeral.

Rueda declined to answer any other questions out of respect for the services, but friends remembered Dunlap as a fun-loving, happy young woman with a bright future.

"She was always extremely positive and bubbly and optimistic," said Marnie Jones, 29, a friend since the two were girls in kindergarten. "She was always laughing and always sweet. She never complained about anything."

Tony Hernandez, 22, is a former co-worker who met Dunlap when the two worked at Kmart.

"She was really hard-working and nice and honest. We were always talking about dorky stuff like Star Wars and Pokemon, and she was really knowledgeable about it," he said.

Hernandez added that he will always cherish the extra time Dunlap spent with him when he was learning the ropes at his job.

"Whenever I didn't understand something at work, she would stay until I knew it," he said. "Everyone else would just leave you to it, but she was very caring and real and genuine. I really appreciated that."

Dunlap had been working as the manager of the arts and crafts department at a Delano Walmart when she got sick. She'd been excited about the job because she had a degree in art history from Cal State Bakersfield.

"Art was her passion," said family friend Cindy Jones, 53. "She was so talented and creative and artistic."

Dunlap also was an avid reader to whom many looked for book recommendations, and grew up going to drag races at an American Nostalgia Racing Association track.

People at the funeral said they were stunned that someone so vibrant and healthy could become so sick so fast.

"It's especially shocking for me because she was my age," said former co-worker Mayra Ornelas, 30.

Ornelas hadn't had a flu shot as of Monday morning, but said she and some friends were planning to get one later that day because they were shaken up by Dunlap's death.

"You don't actually realize how severe it is until it hits close to home," she said.

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