An increase in flu cases this season is putting a strain on hospitals in the province and officials are concerned about low vaccination numbers.

The spike of influenza, influenza-like illness and gastro-intestinal infections has put hospitals over maximum capacity in Edmonton and Calgary.

Hospitals in Edmonton are operating at more than 100 per cent capacity because of flu and gastro-intestinal infections.

The province says only about 11 per cent of Edmontonians received a flu shot this season.

"Our immunization rates are always not as good as I hope they would ever be," said Dr. Chris Sikora, medical officer of health.

"At this point of the season, public health has delivered about 150,000 doses of influenza immunization to people in the Edmonton zone. That's roughly one in nine of Albertans in the Edmonton area. I wish that number were higher."

The flu season hit earlier this year than last. In both Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta Health Services is dealing with 45 influenza outbreaks in continuing care facilities and hospital wards.

In Edmonton, about 20 flu outbreaks have occurred at long-term care facilities and in hospital wards.

Officials say this limits flexibility in managing hospital inpatient capacity.

“When we have an outbreak in a centre, in order to try to contain the outbreak, we don’t allow other people to be admitted to that area if they can’t be safely isolated,” said medical director Dr. Bill Dickout.

There are currently 1,145 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in Alberta, 476 of those in Edmonton alone.

The more than 1,100 figure is compared to just 72 lab-confirmed cases of influenza in Alberta at this same time last year, with 30 of those cases in Edmonton.

Also putting pressure on hospitals is the number of gastro-intestinal illnesses in the province, which experts say have doubled in the past few weeks.

“In our emergency rooms we would normally see about 150 patients a week with influenza, now it’s nearly 700,” said medical director Dr. Bill Dickout.

Alberta Health Services has had to postpone five elective surgeries in Edmonton hospitals as a result of the strain flu cases are putting on the system.

“When we have an outbreak in a centre, in order to try to contain the outbreak, we don’t allow other people to be admitted to that area if they can’t be safely isolated,” Dickout said.

Officials are asking Albertans to help ease pressure off of hospitals and care centres by:

  • Staying home when sick
  • Getting rest
  • Maintaining fluid intake to prevent dehydration

The province says getting immunized is the best way to protect from illness.

“We would like to remind all Albertans that everyone should get their seasonal flu shot. It’s the single-most effective way to help prevent getting sick from influenza on a yearly basis,” Sikora said.

Officials also admit the number of vaccinations for hospital staff are low.

They say the number of those working within the health care system who have received the influenza vaccine is only between 20 to 50 per cent or one in five people.

Those numbers come as a shock to infectious disease expert Lynora Saxinger.

"People shouldn't come to the hospital and get influenza from someone who is trying to care for them," Saxinger said.

"I think it would be useful to know the reasons why people are not getting vaccinated and try to address them because I think that's really concerning."

The vaccine is still available, free of charge, to all Albertans six months and older.

Click here for a list of locations and details.

The province is taking certain steps to help reduce pressure including opening temporary bed capacity where possible, repatriating medically stable out-of-province patients to their home provinces, prioritizing placement to Continuing Care sites for hospitals that are most affected and providing additional Home Care resources to facilitate patient discharge.

Wednesday’s announcement comes after the federal government said it would be dipping into an emergency stockpile of Tamiflu, an antiviral medication typically used in severe cases of the flu.

The shortage comes as the country sees one of its earliest spikes in flu cases in years, causing more severe illness than other flu strains seen in the last two years.

With files from Carmen Leibel