An unpredictable strain of influenza is striking across the Lower Mainland, and many are being forced to turn to hospital emergency rooms with some walk-in clinics locking their doors well before closing time.

The dominant strain of flu this season, H3N2, is highly volatile and particularly tough on seniors. At the same time, respiratory viruses are also circulating at above average rates, increasing the public's chances of getting sick.

While experts urge anyone experiencing shortness of breath or fever lasting a few days to seek medical care, getting that care is proving to be difficult in some parts of the province.

Many walk-in clinics are closing early because their doctors don't get paid after hitting a provincially-mandated daily pay cap.

"Most often, the clinic will have to close after the 50th patient because they cannot afford to stay open," Mike McLoughlin of the Walk-In Clinics of BC Association said.

B.C.'s Medical Services Plan pays doctors a full rate for the first 50 visitors in a day, but the rate is cut in half after that. If they see more than 65, they don't get paid at all for those additional patients, whether they’re willing to put in a longer workday or not.

"It's understandable. The government wants to control financial expenses," McLoughlin said.

"But in particularly bad parts of the year, like the flu season, there should be more flexibility. I think the government can make some changes in this area."

McLoughlin added that it's difficult for clinics to be staffed with more than one doctor, especially at this time of year. He suggests the province adapt a weekly or monthly cap for doctors, rather than a daily maximum.

In an email, the Ministry of Health told CTV News it has no plans to change the policy, which was designed to encourage doctors to spend time with their patients in order to make a correct diagnosis.

But the decision doesn't sit well with some patients who face locked doors instead of doctors.

One of those patients, Nicole, told CTV she'd been to a clinic that had more than a dozen people waiting. She was told by staff the wait would be three hours, "and she couldn't even guarantee I'd get in."

Fortunately, she was able to get in at the second clinic she went to, but many are forced to turn to emergency rooms.

The CarePlace Medical Clinic is one of many feeling the strain on its doctors, posting a notice on the door that reads in part: "This clinic may close earlier than the posted times (especially during busy times) due to government imposed limits to the amount of patients a doctor can see in one day."

It then suggests nearby hospitals to visit for immediate medical care.

Those who are sick are advised to stay home, wash their hands frequently and cough into their arm or sleeve to prevent the spreading of germs.

"There's lots of different viruses circulating in the community and anybody can be affected and come down with flu-like symptoms," BC Centres for Disease Control epidemiologist Catharine Chambers said.

"Most healthy adults are going to fully recover, but for those individuals that do have underlying medical conditions, elderly adults, we do encourage them to seek care early."

With a report from CTV Vancouver's Penny Daflos