Flu season is hitting hard across North America, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declaring this week that the proportion of deaths attributed to the flu and pneumonia have reached an "epidemic threshold."

The public health agency said in its latest weekly flu report, that so far this season there have been 15 influenza-associated deaths among children.

Flu activity is high in about half of the U.S., with flu-like illnesses now approaching the peak levels seen during last year's flu season, the CDC said.

A total of 22 states experienced high flu activity, up from 13 states cited in the CDC's previous weekly report. As well, the proportion of people seeing a healthcare provider for flu-like illnesses increased to 5.5 per cent.

The CDC said it expects flu activity to continue in the coming weeks, with increases occurring in those states that have not yet seen significant activity.

Meanwhile, Canadian healthcare providers are also grappling with increased influenza activity.

In Ontario, emergency rooms are filling up with patients reporting flu-like symptoms.

Lakeridge Health, a hospital located in Whitby, Ont., said ER visits are 40 per cent higher than normal.

Dr. Benjamin Fuller, Lakeridge's chief of emergency and critical care, told CTV News Monday that the flu virus has "overwhelmed" the hospital, with about one-third of its 1,000 daily patients reporting flu-like symptoms.

Fuller said that many hospital staff are working extra hours to accommodate the illness, and many have fallen ill and have been force to take leave.

In Ottawa, public health officials are also reporting a spike in hospital visits due to the aggressive flu strain. Health workers say there are 86 lab-confirmed cases in the nation’s capital.

ERs overcrowded

Two Montreal hospitals are reporting overcrowding due to a bump in the number of young patients visiting their emergency rooms. Health officials are asking parents to stay away unless it is truly an emergency situation.

An emergency physician said 60 per cent of patients are showing up at the hospital with issues that are not considered urgent and can be dealt with at a local walk-in clinic.

However, pediatric emergentologist Dr. Dubravka Diksic say there are some symptoms that warrant a visit to the emergency room.

“Children who are having difficulty breathing, I think would be the most common one,” she said. “If you feel that your child is breathing much faster and much harder than normal than for sure we should take a look at what’s going on.”

In its latest report, Public Health Ontario said there were 252 new influenza cases reported between Dec. 7 to Dec. 13, and a total of 596 flu cases reported this season.

Hospitals in Winnipeg are also struggling with increased flu-like activity.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said Monday that its hospitals recorded more than 900 ER visits due to flu-like illnesses in a single day over the weekend. Typically, they average about 700 to 750 a day.

While only about 10 to 12 per cent of patients visiting the ER are admitted to hospital, the increased traffic has pushed that admission rate to more than 20 per cent, the authority said.