Updated: The flu epidemic has swept across much of the country this winter, and the California Department of Public Health is now reporting higher-than-usual hospitalizations and outpatient visits by California residents struck by influenza this month.
So far, nine California residents under the age of 65 are confirmed to have died from flu-related illnesses, says Cory Egel, spokesman for the CDPH.
In Los Angeles County, this season’s flu has killed four residents – all of whom were 65 years and older, says Allen Solomon, public information officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“We always knew this year would be a more severe flu season because the last two years were actually very benign in terms of how much flu was circulating,” says Dr. Kalvin Yu, regional chief of infectious diseases for Kaiser Permanente Southern California.
He says the uptick in flu cases has been felt throughout Kaiser’s 14 southland medical centers where each week since mid-January has seen an increase in flu cases about one and a half times above the prior week.
Yu says that flu season plays host each year to as many as five different influenza viruses. So if one doesn’t get you, it’s likely another will.
Health officials urge all Californians six months of age and older to get a flu shots. (You can review the California Department of Public Health's Influenza Surveillance survey for the week of Jan. 13-19 at the bottom of this story.)
For those who think it’s too late: “It’s definitely not too late,” he says. “It’s still on rise and hasn’t peaked, so that means that people who haven’t had vaccination still can use this as opportunity to get vaccinated to protect themselves.”
“One thing I’d like to dispel in terms of myths is that the vaccine never is never 100 percent protective,” Yu says. “What the flu vaccine actually does is it it helps mitigate and decrease the symptoms of the flu, if one should catch it that year.”
More importantly, he says, flu shots help decrease the likelihood of contracting flu pneumonia, which is what causes most flu deaths nationwide.
But no matter your position on flu vaccines, Yu says, you can at the very least practice of proper hygiene during flu, which itself goes a long way in stopping the spread of germs.
As of Tuesday, no widespread flu vaccine shortages have been reported in California.
So, remember your mother’s advice and wash your hands, especially before touching your eyes or mouth. And always cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze - preferably with a tissue. Lacking that, it’s safer to others if you sneeze or cough into your upper arm rather than into your hand in order to prevent the spread of germs, Yu says.
Previously: As the flu season hits the majority of the country — 47 states are now fighting the latest strain of the flu virus — four digital "flu fighting tools" stand out for their utility — and novelty — to track the spread of the flu in Southern California and around the country.
Report flu-like symptoms, and see what others have reported near you
The site — a product of Healthmap of Boston Children’s Hospital, in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund — also offers links to local public health resources.
CDC map of flu-like illnesses in the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control map measures "the proportion of outpatient visits to healthcare providers for influenza." Click on the map for more detail.
Find a vaccine provider
The "HealthMap Vaccine Finder" offers a searchable map to find clinics, pharmacies and health departments that are offering the flu vaccine locally.
Searching for symptoms, and comparing to history
Google Flu Trends attempts to do for the flu what the tech giant does for search results, offering a comprehensive view of flu activity in countries and regions throughout the world. According to the FAQ, "Google Flu Trends compares the estimates based on search data against a historic baseline level of flu activity for that area."
Are there other resources out there? Share them with us in the comments below.
This story has been updated.