Seven more American children have died of the flu this week, bringing the death toll to 20 children and more than 85 adults this season, new CDC data show.
While this year’s epidemic is still shy of the devastating death toll seen in 2014/2015, officials warn the rate of cases is severe, and this season looks set to be the second-worst on record.
The deadly H3N2 virus is now widespread in more than 46 states, and the rate of cases is quadruple that of previous years, and hospitalizations have doubled in the last week as the outbreak reaches its ‘peak’.
Uniquely, this year baby boomers appear to be as vulnerable to the virus as the usual victims – infants and the elderly.
Unveiling the sobering statistics on Friday morning, CDC officials insisted it is not too late to get the flu shot, despite evidence that this year’s vaccine is only 30 percent effective against H3N2.
In fact, Dr. Daniel Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division at the CDC, says the vaccine could be even more valuable now since it is more effective against strains which are only just emerging now – including the H1N1 strain and various B viruses.
‘Flu seasons every year are bad but this season is on the severe side,’ Dr. Jernigan said on Friday.
‘There’s still a long way to go, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of flu to go, there are strains still to show up. B viruses show up later in the season, and we are also seeing H1N1 show up in states that have already had H3 activity. It’s, therefore, a good reason to get vaccinated if you haven’t.’
According to Dr. Jernigan, the flu is not expected to be as devastating to the US as it was to Australia, where vaccination rates are lower and the general population is older.
Indeed, patient traffic for flu is no longer skyrocketing the way it was in December.
‘It looks like it’s starting to level out,’ said the CDC’s Lynnette Brammer, who oversees flu tracking.
Many flu seasons don’t really get going until around Christmas and don’t crescendo until February. That’s how last year’s flu season played out. This season got off to an early start and cases surged over the holidays.
Nonetheless, Dr. Jernigan said the CDC is concerned about controlling the virus which has sickened and killed both vulnerable (the very young and very old) as well as people with stronger immune systems in their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Patients who went to the ER at Palomar Medical Center Escondido, north of San Diego, then had to wait as long as nine hours. The hospital this week took down a tent is used to handle the overflow but is still seeing a lot of patients with fevers, aches, chills and other flu symptoms.
‘We’re having to treat people in hallways, in chairs, wherever we have space,’ said Michelle Gunnett, the director of emergency services.
There’s a tent in place at Kaweah Delta Medical Center in the Central California city of Visalia, where doctors this week have been pulling double and triple shifts to keep up.
‘It’s like a MASH unit,’ said Dr. Ed Hirsch, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
In Chicago, paramedics have been forced to wait at ERs with patients for as long as two hours for an open spot. That means the ambulances can’t be used for other calls, said Larry Langford, a spokesman for the city’s fire department.
A pressing matter is the shortage of antiviral medications in states with particularly severe outbreaks – despite the fact that there is more medication available for pharmacies than ever before since many generic versions have been approved this year.
Dr. Jernigan said the issue largely boils down to pharmacies not being aware of all the manufacturers producing these medications, meaning their stock is more limited than necessary.
To conclude, he urged people to follow the ‘sound advice of your mother’: cover your mouth, wash your hands, and stay warm.
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