The flu is hitting Manitobans earlier and with more severe symptoms than last year, and that's putting pressure on Winnipeg hospitals, say provincial health officials.

There are nearly as many people in Manitoba with the flu right now as there were during the peak of the cold and flu season last winter, said the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's Lori Lamont.

Since September, four people have died from the flu, while 25 people have been hospitalized for the illness. Ninety-four people have tested positive for the flu, according to the latest data from Manitoba Health.

"Our emergency departments have been at or over their normal capacity for much of the last 10 days," said Lamont, the WRHA's acting chief operating officer and vice-president of nursing and health professions.

"Certainly we've seen long waits. Sometimes that is in the hallways."

This week, Winnipegger Sara Atnikov told CBC that her 97-year-old grandmother spent two days in a Grace Hospital hallway, waiting for a room.

Atnikov blamed the closures of the urgent care centre at the Misericordia Health Centre and the emergency room at the Victoria General Hospital, which was converted to an urgent care centre, for overcrowding at the Grace.

Lamont flatly denied the closures have caused delays in emergency rooms, saying hospital overcrowding is not a new issue. 

"The challenge with flu is we never know exactly when in the flu season we're going to see the most impact," she said, adding hospitals have already pulled out extra beds to accommodate a surge in patients.

Lamont said hospitals are also in touch with each other to try to divert ambulances to hospitals that have fewer patients waiting for beds.

Only 18% of Manitobans vaccinated

Normally the flu season arrives toward the end of December or early January, but this year it began earlier than normal in Manitoba, officials say.

"We've now been seeing it for about 10 days. In fact, the levels we're seeing today are almost at the height of the impact last year," Lamont said Thursday.

The flu threatens to be more dangerous this season than in past years.

Dr. Richard Rusk, medical officer of health in charge of communicable disease control with the province, said this year's influenza strain appears to be aggressive, based on what officials saw in the southern hemisphere — often seen as a precursor of what's to come here.

"That's why we need to be really vigilant about this," he said.

The influenza A virus spreading in Manitoba is especially dangerous for people with compromised immune systems and the elderly, said Rusk.

On paper, this year's flu vaccine is a good match for the strain but it does not seem to be working as well as hoped. It seems to prevent the flu 10 per cent of the time, the WRHA said.

In addition, only about 18 per cent of Manitobans have received the flu vaccine so far this year, well below the threshold needed for herd immunity.

Still, Rusk said there is a benefit to getting the shot. 

"The season is only just beginning in reality, so if we can get our vaccination rates up now [it] will [be] really helpful for later on in the season."

Besides getting the vaccine, health officials say the single best way to prevent spread of the flu is regular hand washing and staying home when you feel ill.