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Josephine County has its first fatality from H1N1

A woman who died last week at a Grants Pass hospital has become Josephine County's first confirmed victim of the H1N1 influenza virus.

The county health department announced that test results indicated the 41-year-old woman had the virus. Grant Walker, a Three Rivers Community Hospital spokesman, said she died in the emergency room.

Medical privacy laws prevent release of information about whether she died of the virus or complications associated with it.

Belle Shepherd, Josephine County's public health director, asked local businesses not to require employees to get a doctor's note to return to work after having been absent with flu-like symptoms. In a media release, Shepherd said the number of people seeking a doctor's note to return to work has put extra strain on physicians already working overtime to see patients.

Local hospitals continue to be busy treating people with influenza symptoms along with the usual run of illnesses and injuries. The number of patients in critical-care units fluctuates daily, said Beth DePew, Jackson County's hospital preparedness coordinator. As of Tuesday afternoon, just two of the 40-some critical-care beds at local hospitals were not in use, DePew said.

Despite the steady stream of people with flu-like symptoms, relatively few of the critical-care beds were filled by flu patients. At Providence Medford Medical Center, for example, all 15 critical-care beds were filled Tuesday, but on average, only one or two critical-care patients on any given day have influenza symptoms, hospital spokeswoman Lauren Van Sickle said.

The exact number of influenza patients at any given time is difficult to pin down, because some cases have not been confirmed by tests, and the population changes daily.

"It's very fluid," DePew said. "Last Thursday we were down to two (available) beds (in critical care). By Friday we were up to six. Monday it was eight or nine. Now it's two."

Hospitals have postponed some elective surgeries that might have required a critical bed during recovery to make more beds available, DePew said.

Public health officials are encouraging people who have influenza-related health concerns to call the state hot line at 1-800-978-3040. By later today Jackson County public health officials are planning to staff their own information line for local people who need more specific information.

The plan called for the phone to be staffed by volunteers from the Medical Reserve Corps, said Chad Petersen, a spokesman for the county health department. Petersen said the plan that was developing Tuesday would have callers dial the state hot line, and their calls would be referred back to local volunteers if the state hot line could not answer their questions.

Calls would have to be made to the state hot line before they can be referred locally, Petersen said.

As of Tuesday, 239 Oregonians have been hospitalized for influenza since Sept. 1. There have been seven confirmed deaths, including one in Jackson County in July, when a Klamath County man died at Rogue Valley Medical Center.

In Jackson County, 32 people have been hospitalized for influenza, second only to Multnomah County (Portland) where 41 people have been hospitalized.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or bkettler@mailtribune.com.