St. Charles Bend emergency department staff tend to patients in a converted waiting area at the hospital in Bend, Oregon, on Jan. 9. The waiting area has been used to treat and triage patients to handle the increasing number of patients, most of them suffering from the flu.Joe Kline / The Bulletin via AP
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Flu activity increased “sharply” across the U.S. last week, and the virus is still widespread in all states except Hawaii, federal health officials said Friday.
At least four different strains of influenza are making people sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Flu vaccines are designed to protect against three or four of the strains but work poorly against the most common strain circulating, called H3N2.
Another 10 children were reported to have died from flu, the CDC said, although not all the deaths occurred last week. It can take weeks for states to gather the information and send it to CDC. So far this flu season, 30 children have died from influenza.
Last season, 110 children died from flu in the U.S.
Every year, influenza kills between 12,000 and 49,000 people and can send as many as 700,000 people to the hospital, the CDC says. It affects so many people that adult cases and deaths can only be estimated.
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The CDC says this is the worst flu season since the 2014-2015 season. Flu can vary a lot from year to year, and this year it’s spreading actively in all the states at the same time. In other years, it has usually moved in irregular waves, peaking in different parts of the country at different times.
“We’re seeing flu throughout the entire country,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health and president-elect of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO).
“By every measure – whether it’s by outpatient visits, hospitalizations, laboratory testing - this has been a very early season and a more severe one than recent influenza seasons,” agreed Dr. Karen Smith, director of the California Department of Public Health.
Some hospitals are overwhelmed, said Dr. Larry Wolk, Colorado’s chief medical officer.
“We’ve had well over 2,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations. That’s double our average number of cases we usually see this time of year,” Wolk told reporters in a briefing organized by ASTHO.
Worried flu patients are flooding emergency rooms and Alexander-Scott said her state health department was trying to steer those who are not suffering emergencies away from emergency departments. Only the urgently sick or injured should be in the ER, she said – others should be calling their own primary care doctors or visiting urgent care clinics.
It’s still not too late to get a flu shot, all the officials said. Pharmacies and drug stores reported they still had plenty of supplies, and the CDC predicts flu season will last several more weeks at the least.
“It may be several months before this flu season ends,” Wolk said.