Emergency departments and doctor's offices across Southern California are bracing for a flood of patients suffering with the same wave of influenza and respiratory diseases that have swept hospitals nationwide.
A spike in respiratory illness that includes fever, cough and sore throat was reported this week by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
Most cases to date are caused by viruses other than influenza, but flu activity is on the rise and expected to get worse over the next few weeks, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, medical director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
"We're approaching the time of year when we typically see peak numbers of flu cases," Fielding said. "There is still time to get a flu shot or the flu mist nasal spray vaccine. The flu season does not end with the winter holidays, and flu can circulate as late as May."
One flu-related death has been reported in Los Angeles County so far this season, while a total of four have died statewide.
California has been experiencing an increase in influenza in various areas of the state, especially in the rest of Southern California and the Bay Area regions, according to the state's Department of Public Health.
The flu is present only in selected regions now in California, compared to the deadly, widespread trend seen nationwide that has caused almost 20 pediatric deaths. States across the U.S. began to see flu cases earlier than
usual. Massachusetts reported 18 deaths this season, and Boston declared a state of emergency. Meanwhile, Chicago hospitals were turning ambulances away, because emergency departments were inundated with patients suffering from influenza, according to published reports.
Hospitals across Los Angeles County and beyond all reported varying degrees of illness on Wednesday.
"We're seeing a dramatic increase in flulike symptoms in the ER," said Dr. David Ulick, attending physician in the emergency department at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. "It means you are having the same kick-your-butt type symptoms," as the flu, he said. "In the 10 years I've been here, this is the worst I've seen. Everybody's getting it."
Bad colds are just as, well, bad, physicians are saying.
"We have seen an increase in respiratory virus and stomach virus with diarrhea, as well as influenza A and influenza B," said Dr. Frederick Carr, medical director of the emergency department at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center in Torrance.
"Our emergency department is busy with every bed filled," Carr said. "I've seen it mostly among the unvaccinated ... everything from severe muscle aches and sore throat to pain in the eyes. Some of the flu cases include vomiting."
At Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, the trend is the same.
"We've certainly seen a spike in patients with flulike illness, but most of those patients do not have influenza," said Dr. Greg Moran with Olive View's Emergency Department.
Influenza season in Los Angeles typically does not peak until February, and the emergency department already is operating at capacity all the time, he said.
Along with local physicians, medical experts with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to promote the flu vaccine, saying it protects against 91 percent of strains circulating.
"While we can't say for certain how severe this season will be, we can say that a lot of people are getting sick with influenza and we are getting reports of severe illness and hospitalizations," said Dr. Joe Bresee, chief of epidemiology and prevention with the CDC's influenza division.
Dr. Angelique Campen, assistant medical director at Providence Saint Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank, said more flu cases have started to appear there.
"I don't think we've hit catastrophe yet, but we are ready," she said. "We always have a plan in place."
Long Beach health officials also are reporting an increase in flu and respiratory cases, especially among infants.
While flu numbers have been moderate in Long Beach, there have been four times the normal amount of respiratory illness cases this season.
"We're seeing a high number of RSV cases (respiratory syncytial virus)," said Long Beach Health Officer Dr. Mitchell Kushner. "They're the highest in four years."
The RSV condition is very similar to a bad cold or a flu. Both St. Mary and Long Beach Memorial medical centers reported an increase in RSV cases.
"We're very, very busy," said Sharon Sauser, manager of respiratory care at St. Mary. "The pediatric unit is very busy with respiratory cases."
Along with getting the flu shot, medical experts continue to emphasize hand washing and cough etiquette, said Roy Boukidjian, department manager for infection control at Northridge Hospital Medical Center.
That means coughing and sneezing into your arm instead of your hand, he said.
"We in the West and Southwest have mild (flu season) right now, but there is definitely a spike," he said. "The flu vaccine is not perfect, but it's good enough to either prevent, or decrease the severity."
Staff Writer Joe Segura contributed to this report.