State health officials are warning members of the public to protect themselves against an influenza that has claimed at least 27 lives so far this season, with cases  climbing at a faster rate than in past years.

Experts say several indicators suggest the flu season is getting worse.

The season began earlier than normal, and the number of doctor visits and hospitalizations due to influenza and pneumonia are at levels public health officials typically don’t expect until the flu season peaks in February, California Department of Public Health officials told reporters on a statewide call Tuesday.

“One thing consistent about influenza is it’s very unpredictable. It’s very challenging to predict … how and when virus activity will end or peak,” said Dr. Gil Chavez, a state epidemiologist and deputy director for the Center of Infectious Diseases at the CDPH.

Roughly 70 percent of those who died of influenza under 65 years of age were not vaccinated, public health officials said.

Despite the vaccination being less effective this year, especially against the more common H3N2 strain, public health officials are still urging people to get the shot. The number of people who have received influenza vaccinations from the Kern County Public Health Department is down 20 percent from last year, data show. Health officials are unclear why. 

“The flu shot is still the most effective way to prevent you from getting the flu,” said Denise Smith, director of the Kern County Public Health Services Department’s Disease Control division. “We’re still at the very early stages of the flu season.”

No one in Kern County had died of the flu through Jan. 4, but three were hospitalized, Kern County Public Health Director Matt Constantine said at a morning press conference addressing the local impact of influenza. Statewide, 87 people under the age of 65 had been hospitalized.

Emergency department visits, however, are up, Constantine said. Roughly 10 percent of all emergency department visits this season have been for flu-like symptoms — 45 percent higher than the same time last year.

“And 10 percent is what we typically see at the peak of flu season,” Constantine said. “

In schools, the percentage of students absent because of flu-like illnesses is the highest they’ve been since 2015, public health data shows.

Addressing concerns about a shortage of flu vaccine and antiviral medications reported this weekend throughout California, state health officials said they have worked with drug manufacturers to ensure they have enough pharmaceuticals for the state.

“As of today, there’s no shortage of influenza vaccine in California. There’s an ample supply of antiviral medication, and it’s our understanding manufacturers have plenty of vaccine on hand,” said Dr. James Watt, chief of the CDPH Division of Communicable Disease Control Center for Infectious Diseases.

Watt described the dwindling supply reported this weekend as “spot shortages” among pharmacies, and said they don’t represent the state’s supply of the drugs. The CDPH recently shipped 500,000 doses of vaccine to local health departments to get to people in need, Watt added.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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