Influenza is spreading and the toll is affecting local healthcare capabilities. Last week, hospitals in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties were overwhelmed with emergency visits from patients complaining of flu and influenza-like symptoms.

The rapid rate of spread is occurring throughout California, according to state public health officials. They have advised that influenza is widely circulating in California, but getting a flu vaccine is still valuable protection. From south to north, the reports of influenza-like illness and visits to doctors’ offices or emergency rooms continued to increase again last week.

During the last week of December, visits to physician offices and local hospital emergency rooms were above the prior-year normal levels, according to the Riverside County Department of Public Health’s weekly report and the California Department of Public Health report. In the previous week, calls for ambulance service were more than 30 percent greater than the average weekly level, according to Jose Arballo Jr., senior public information specialist for the county DPH.

Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz agreed that requests for visits and transportation to local hospitals for flu symptoms have increased markedly in the past two weeks.

The number of states reporting widespread flu activity went from 36 to 46, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nationally, people ages 65 and older are the most likely to need hospitalization due to flu-like symptoms.

In Riverside County, school absenteeism also is growing, according to the flu report.

“The flu is definitely spiking in both Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and our residents need to protect themselves,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County public health officer. “If you’re sick, take care of yourself and don’t go to work or school. And if you’re not sick and you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, you should.”

“It’s important to remember that 911 is for serious or life-threatening medical and psychiatric emergencies,” Dr. Reza Vaezazizi, medical director for the Emergency Medical Services agencies for Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said in a press release. “This is always true, and especially pertinent in our current situation.” The emergency room should be used only for medical or psychiatric emergencies that are serious or life-threatening.

It’s not too late to get a flu shot. The California Department of Public Health recommends influenza immunization for all persons 6 months and older who have not received influenza vaccine this season. Even if the vaccine effectiveness is limited, immunization can reduce illness, hospitalization and death due to influenza.