Flu season is starting to pick up in California

The flu season is ramping up in California, and public health officials say they only expect it to worsen in the coming weeks.

Data released Friday morning shows that cases of the flu are as expected for this time of year. Still, the number of flu hospitalizations and deaths falls far below what California has experienced in recent years.

As of the end of January, seven Californians under the age of 65 had died from the flu since the start of the season in October. At this time last year, there had been 18 flu deaths, and two years ago, there were 147 deaths.

But experts say that could be because the last two flu seasons peaked in December, while this one looks like it might peak in February.

Though flu activity in the state has been mild so far, all signs point to an impending outbreak, said Dr. Jose Dryjanski, infectious disease specialist and Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s co-regional infectious disease lead.

Already this week, more people have been showing up at Kaiser urgent care centers and emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms than went to the centers a few weeks ago, he said.

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And California’s flu season often lags behind the rest of the country, since the virus travels from east to west, Dryjanski said. Last year, the flu season peaked nationally in December, but peaked in California in January.

“I think we are going to have a peak in a week or two weeks, and we’re going to see much more influenza than what we’ve been seeing up until now,” said Dryjanski.

Helen Macfie, who monitors emergency room visits at Southern California's six MemorialCare Hospitals, also said that more patients have been showing up at emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms over the last two weeks. “I think it’s that late-arrival flu,” she said.

Nationally, numbers of flu cases are low in most states, but experts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that they expect to see more in the coming weeks.

Testing by the CDC shows the most common strains of flu going around this year are H1N1, H3N2, H1N1 and some B viruses. Researchers found that the strains circulating now match those included in the available vaccine — meaning that this year's flu shot is probably providing strong immunity.

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Public health officials recommend that everyone over 6 months old get a flu shot. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to begin offering protection.

“If you haven’t gotten the flu vaccine, there’s still time,” Dryjanski said. “It will still protect you.”

Follow @skarlamangla on Twitter for more health news.

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