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The Flu Season Hits Early and Hard

Times Staff Writer

Emergency rooms across Los Angeles County have become crowded with people suffering flulike symptoms in the last few weeks, signaling an earlier start to the winter flu season, public health authorities said Wednesday.

The increase has caused some hospitals to request paramedics to divert patients to other facilities.

“We’re hearing that hospitals are very overwhelmed,” said Carol Meyer, director of Los Angeles County’s Emergency Medical Systems Agency.

Eleven children have been hospitalized with serious cases, which is more than expected for mid-December, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County public health director.

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At Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, the number of flu cases seen in cultures has jumped dramatically in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, the center identified fewer than 20 confirmed flu cultures; on Monday, it was 45.

“It’ll probably spike around Christmastime,” said Dr. Greg Strayer, an infectious-disease practitioner at the medical center. Strayer said he thinks this flu season will continue through mid- to late January.

Health officials urged people to call their doctors before they consider going into an emergency room. Some HMOs may offer nurses who can be contacted by telephone or online.

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Most people with no other medical complications often get well at home, through rest and over-the-counter medications.

“To come into the ER with the flu probably isn’t the best choice unless you’re in a high-risk group,” Strayer said. “It’s a long wait, you don’t feel good, you’re exposed to germs. It’s not the best place to wait around.”

The county’s first flu outbreak occurred at a nursing facility, where about two dozen residents and staffers fell ill, officials said last week. None required hospitalization.

The county is offering flu shots to the public. The shot can take up to two weeks to be effective, Fielding said.

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People who suffer from other illnesses, such as diabetes, heart or lung disease, or are more than 60 years old, should call their physicians if they start to show symptoms, Strayer said.

People at risk for complications from the flu can also ask their doctor for a prescription for antiflu medication, which can help prevent a person from falling ill, or reduce the severity of the flu’s symptoms.

Symptoms include fever, cough, headache, muscle aches and fatigue.

While most people can recover from the flu with a few days’ bed rest, it can be deadly for others, including the elderly, infants and toddlers, and the chronically ill. Complications from the flu cause up to 40,000 deaths nationally every year, and put as many as 2 million people in the hospital. The flu is also the leading cause of pneumonia.

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Los Angeles County health officials are offering flu shots at county outreach and public health clinics. Information on the vaccines can be obtained by calling the county’s information hotline, 211, or going to www.lapublichealth.org.


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