Overwhelmed by flu cases, some ERs turn ambulances away

Last Updated Jan 5, 2018 1:53 PM EST

Health officials in Southern California are warning the public that the current flu season is so intense that some hospitals are rerouting patients due to their increasingly limited capacity. From Laguna Beach to Long Beach, emergency rooms were struggling to cope with the overwhelming cases of influenza and had gone into "diversion mode," during which ambulances are sent to other hospitals, CBS Los Angeles reports.

O.C. Global, one of Orange County's busiest hospitals, announced Thursday afternoon it would no longer be accepting ambulances at its emergency room except for those transporting trauma patients.

"It's not just Orange County, it's all across the country," internist Dr. Ray Casciari with St. Joseph Hospital told CBS2 Los Angeles. "So, yes, this is going to be an epidemic year," Casciari warned.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 26 states and New York City were experiencing high levels of flu-like illness as of last week. Nine more states plus Puerto Rico were seeing moderate levels of flu.

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CDC / ILINet

Earlier in the day, the City of Riverside held a press conference during which health officials addressed the "surge" in influenza cases during the last week in the city, as well as Riverside County.

Dr. Steven Kim, medical director for Riverside Community Hospital, said emergency room admissions for the flu were up 40 percent above the norm, though he said many of the patients suffered from "uncomplicated influenza," meaning most of them would get better on their own with minimal medical attention.

However, people are susceptible to pneumonia, Kim said. The surge has been in influenza A, or "cyclical" flu cases.

The Orange County Health Care Agency has logged at least 1,200 flu cases, more than double than what was seen in the first week of January 2016.

For the state, Casciani predicted this is an early spike in cases that will reach four times what it was at the same time last year.

Prevention — which includes washing hands and staying home if a person is sick — is key, doctors say. 

Casciani also warned that a sneeze contains up to 500,000 influenza germs.

While the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective against the flu — in fact, this year it's far lower — the shot can reduce the severity of the illness.

When is the flu serious enough to warrant a trip to the hospital? Health officials say a person should head to the emergency room when symptoms include confusion, difficulty breathing, vomiting and uncontrolled fever.