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Cover your mouth, wash your hands. The flu is back — with a vengeance

Dr. Joseph Shadpour prepares to evaluate patients in urgent care with flu symptoms.
Michelle Faust/KPCC
Dr. Joseph Shadpour prepares to evaluate patients in urgent care with flu symptoms.

It’s been a bad flu season so far, according to the California Department of Public Health. The virus is widespread and testing the capacity of clinics and hospitals.

Elizabeth Rojas knows it first-hand. She waits in front of  HealthCare Partners urgent care clinic in Pasadena wearing a mask over her mouth and nose. Rojas has had flu symptoms for about a week.

"A lot of coughing, sore throat, fever, chills, typical flu symptoms, but [aggressive,]" she said.

Rojas' sister Katherine is with her; she's starting to come down with symptoms similar to Elizabeth’s.

"A lot of my family members have had it, just in the past week," said Katherine Rojas.

Both say they wish they wouldn’t have procrastinated getting the flu vaccine.

This clinic has seen 25 percent more patients so far this flu season than by this time last year, according to lead clinician Dr. Joseph Shadpour.

"Our waiting room has been completely packed probably for the past week and a half, to the extent that people have been waiting outside," he said. "For the last seven days, [our volume] has pretty much broken every record we’re had at the site for number of patients seen."

State and county health departments don’t have official numbers of flu cases since Christmas weekend, but at that point California had seven flu-related deaths.

Orange County flu case are double what they were at this time last flu season. L.A. County is expecting to see a spike since the last update.

"It just might be an earlier peak or it could be worse this year," said Roshan Reporter, medical epidemiologist with acute communicable disease control at the L.A. County Department of Public Health.

It's too soon to tell the severity of the flu season, but it's not too late to get vaccinated against the flu, even now, she said.

Typically, it’s best to get your flu shot by the end of October, especially if you have a chronic illness, said Doctor Neha Nanda, infectious disease specialist at USC’s Keck Hospital.

Still, Nanda said, "Get it now, because we don’t know what the future holds for us," said Nanda.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates this year’s vaccine, like last year’s, to be 32 percent effective.

"It’s never a hundred percent," Nanda explained.

The vaccine's limited effectiveness shouldn’t dissuade people from getting immunized, because the flu shot reduces the severity of the symptoms considerably for those who do contract the virus, she said.

"If that reduces his probability of getting admitted to the hospital, I think that patient would take it," said Nanda.

Nanda has another simple recommendation: "Hand-in-hand with the vaccine is effective hand washing."