A wave of flu has gripped Southern California as the virus is now widespread, overwhelming hospitals and urgent care centers earlier in the season than usual. Medical assistant Ingrid Rios gives a flu shot to Mario Pineda at Torrance Memorial Primary Care Center in Torrance. Photo by Robert Casillas, Daily Breeze/SCNG
A wave of flu has gripped Southern California as the virus is now widespread, overwhelming hospitals and urgent care centers. So far this flu season, the virus has killed 163 people under the age of 65 in California. Above, medical assistant Ingrid Rios gives a flu shot to Mario Pineda at Torrance Memorial Primary Care Center. (Photo by Robert Casillas, Daily Breeze/SCNG)

New influenza cases are dropping across California, but deaths continue to rise in the Golden State as this season’s mighty wave of flu maintains its grip locally and on the nation, state health officials announced Friday.

Last week, 36 more people in California died of flu-related illnesses, or six more than the week before, making it the deadliest week so far this season. That brought the number of flu-related deaths to 163 statewide, but doesn’t include those who are 65 years old or older, according to the latest data released by the California Department of Public Health.

Still, while fewer cases were being reported in California, the overall spread of flu remained higher than in previous years. State officials continued to call the flu widespread and activity levels elevated.

In Los Angeles County, where there have been 164 flu deaths that include people over the age of 65, there appears to be a decline in total number of influenza cases, based on people who are being tested, said Dr. Sharon Balter, director, Acute Communicable Disease Control, at the county’s Department of Public Health. The tests are being done on people visiting emergency departments who are complaining of flu-like illnesses, she said.

“It is too early to say that we have “peaked,” as influenza is complicated and multiple strains can be circulating in a community,” Balter added. “Later in the season it is not uncommon to see a shift from influenza A to influenza B and so we could see numbers increase.”

She also said it was still not too late to get the flu vaccine.

“Influenza deaths continue to accrue, we have a total of 164 reported this year to date compared to 80 in the entire influenza season last year,” Balter noted. “The median age of patients who died of influenza this year is 81. Thus, it is much more serious in the elderly. It is therefore very important for people who are elderly and have signs and symptoms of influenza to call their doctor as soon as possible even if they have gotten the flu vaccine in order to prevent severe outcomes.”

While some counties were reporting less new cases, it was unclear Friday based on surveillance data if this season’s influenza has hit its peak in California.

influenzaRELATED STORY: Flu deaths in LA County this season have already doubled the 2016-17 total

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In addition, the number of hospitalizations for pneumonia and influenza at Kaiser Permanente facilities in northern California last week was 7.6 percent compared to the week before and” is above expected levels for this time of the year.” according to health officials

Federal officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that this year’s flu season would be as bad, or nearly as bad as in 2009.

That’s because the dominant strain is Influenza A H3N2. The strain isn’t new, but when it is present in some seasons, it is associated with severe illness in young children and people 65 years and older.

This year’s flu vaccine proved more effective against three influenza strains, but the fourth, H3N2, proved challenging.

In general, influenza viruses are always mutating, but the H3N2 virus mutates faster so that vaccine makers can’t quite catch up to it, some scientists say.

RELATED STORY: The H3N2 flu virus is known as the hospitalizer. Here’s why.

Influenza symptoms include fever or feeling feverish, a cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, chills and fatigue. Most people with the flu are able to treat themselves at home, health officials say, but in some, the disease can lead to complications including pneumonia, seizures, and worsening of chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and heart or lung disease.

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