The death toll from influenza in California rose sharply on Friday, amid a brutal flu season that has spread across the nation.
State health officials said that 32 people under 65 died last week of the flu, making it the deadliest week this season so far. In total, 74 people under age 65 have died of the flu since October, compared with 14 at the same time last year.
The current flu season is dominated by a strain of Influenza A known as H3N2, which is often a poor match for the influenza vaccine and tends to be deadlier than other strains. National health officials say 2018 is the first year in more than a decade in which the entire country is grappling with high numbers of flu cases at the same time.
"California is facing the same problem that most of the U.S. is facing," state Department of Public Health Director Dr. Karen Smith told reporters this week. "This has been a very early season and a more severe one."
The flu season typically peaks in February, but thousands of people in California started falling very ill in December, causing long wait times in emergency rooms and shortages of flu medications. Officials say it's hard to tell how severe the flu season will end up being.
"It's too soon at this point to say with any certainty whether this season is going to peak soon, or whether we're going to have many more weeks with high levels of influenza activity," Smith said.
California officials collect flu death data only on people under 65. So many more people 65 and older die of the flu each year that the deaths under 65 reveal more about the severity of the flu season, they say.
Though the death count increased last week, fewer people appear to be showing up at hospitals recently infected with the flu. State data shows the number of people testing positive for influenza fell last week, suggesting the flu season could be winding down.
In early January, doctors in the emergency room at Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster were treating an extra 150 patients a day, according to ER physician Larry Stock. Now they're seeing an additional 50 patients a day, he said.
Still, the hospital opened a special "flu zone" on Monday where nurses can quickly treat patients with mild influenza symptoms. Many hospitals have recently set up additional treatment areas, including tents, to handle the influx of flu patients.
"We think it's possible we missed the peak," Stock said. "Nevertheless it's still helpful."
The flu season has strained the hospital, which at times has been running low on hospital beds and flu testing kits as well as staff who aren't out sick, Stock said. Patients were also leaving without being seen because of the wait in the emergency room, he said.
In the "flu zone," providers can write patients a prescription or help them figure out which over-the-counter medicines to take for the flu, he said. Many also just need comfort after hearing about how dangerous this flu season is, he said.
"They feel really scared," Stock said. "They've never felt this sick before, they're not sure they're not going to die."
Officials say that it's not too late to get the flu shot. The vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months of age or older, and is especially important for pregnant women, children under 5, adults over 65 and others who are at high-risk for complications from the flu.
Experts say the flu shot may be only 30% effective this year.
Dr. Neha Nanda, a hospital epidemiologist at USC's Keck Hospital, said the H3N2 virus mutates very quickly, which can mean the vaccine isn't a good match for what's circulating in the community.
"H3N2 is a strain that's most capable of outsmarting us," she said.
Still, the flu shot can reduce the severity of symptoms for people who get the flu, she said. It takes between two and four weeks for the flu shot to take effect, she said.
"While there are indications the flu season may now be peaking, we also know that the flu season will be continuing for many more weeks," said Jim Blumenstock, chief of health security for the Assn. of State and Territorial Health Officials, in a call with reporters this week.
Loma Linda University Medical Center put up a surge tent after New Year's because of an influx of flu patients. Almost three weeks later, they have yet to take it down.
"We haven't experienced a significant drop, so we'll have to probably take it on a week-by-week basis," said the hospital's chair of ER medicine Dr. Tammi Thomas.