The flu has arrived in California with a vengeance, say local and state health officials.
The statewide rate of hospitalizations due to respiratory illness during the first week of January was the highest seen in 10 years, according to the California Department of Public Health. Health officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties say they're seeing more cases than usual at this point in the season.
It's impossible to track the exact number of flu cases, since many people never get tested for the illness. So counties measure flu activity based on several indicators. In L.A. County, "by all of the measures we use, the amount of influenza activity in the county is very high," says Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, acting director of the county public health department's acute communicable disease control program.
There have been 2,433 confirmed cases in L.A. County so far this flu season, compared with 618 at this time last year, according to the health department.
It's been seven or eight years since L.A. saw this much flu activity at this point in the season, says Schwartz. Flu season typically peaks in February, he adds.
He says there have been 17 flu outbreaks reported in L.A. County long-term care facilities for the elderly, compared with 19 outbreaks during last year's entire flu season. Similarly, the state health department says it's received more than twice the number of outbreak reports as in recent years.
In Orange County, there were 931 confirmed cases as of the second week of January, according to Jessica Good, spokeswoman for the county's Health Care Agency. That compares with 281 cases at this point last year. The county's last severe flu season, spanning 2014-2015, saw 922 cases, she says.
At Children's Hospital Los Angeles, doctors have seen almost twice as many cases of flu this year compared with this time last year, says pediatrician Juan Espinoza. He says this could suggest the flu is a little more virulent this year, or fewer people got vaccinated.
Health officials underscore that it is not too late to get a flu shot. They say the vaccine closely matches the virus circulating this season, suggesting it will provide solid protection against the illness.
Flu is mainly spread through droplets from coughs and sneezes. Symptoms may include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches, chills and fatigue. Illness can become severe, leading to missed school or work, hospitalization and death.