Despite hopes the nation would see the flu epidemic drop off by now, the number of severe cases only continues to increase, U.S. health officials said in a somber telephone conference Friday.
And they don’t know when it will end.
One in 10 American deaths last week came from influenza or pneumonia, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Georgia, flu has killed 66 people this winter.
“We were hoping to have better news today,” Schuchat said. “Overall hospitalizations are now significantly higher than what we’ve seen since current tracking began” in 2010.
The number of hospitalizations due to flu in Georgia surpassed 1,000, with 120 of those patients hospitalized last week alone, according to figures released Friday by the state Department of Public Health.
Dr. Gabriel Onofre, who works at the Mercy Care clinic for the poor in Chamblee, said through a spokeswoman that his clinic was awash in adults coming in with flu.
“One man who we vaccinated came a week or so later and tested positive for influenza — a different strain,” Onofre said. “Another man came in with flulike symptoms and collapsed at our front door.” The clinic immediately sent him to the hospital in an ambulance.
Although this year’s flu vaccine is far from perfect, experts urge people to get it if they haven’t yet. It missed the most important strain. But it can prevent deadly secondary infections of additional strains that pile on when an already weakened patient is attacked by a flu they normally would be able to fend off.
The flu is always dangerous for the elderly and small children. But this year, more than one-fifth of Georgia’s 1,027 hospitalized patients have been between the ages of 18 and 49.
The illness remains widespread in all states but Hawaii and Oregon.
A hospital in Allentown, Pa., put up a “surge tent” in the parking lot to handle the overflow. A hospital in Visalia, Calif., this week put up its second tent; and the California Department of Public Health has posted guidelines for hospitals statewide to apply for their own. Here in Atlanta, Grady Memorial Hospital brought in a specialized tractor-trailer with 14 medical beds and parked it outside the emergency room.
And it is only now, after people have spent weeks spreading the flu and lying sick in hospitals, that the sickest are dying, and the extent of this flu’s deadliness is becoming clear.
Ten more patients below age 18 were confirmed dead from the flu last week, bringing the national total of child flu deaths to 63.
“I think they were anticipating we were going to reach a plateau and start to decline,” said Ted Ross, the director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology at the University of Georgia, who works on flu. “Based upon the trend, that should have happened in mid-January. It’s basically breaking this week the rates we saw in the 2009 pandemic. … This is obviously troubling.”
Such deaths signal an alarming development that CDC officials said they’re seeing across the country. Scientists expect the flu to be most dangerous among small children and the elderly, not so much among the working-age healthy population.
“Where we’re really seeing unusual levels of hospitalizations is in non-elderly adults,” Schuchat said.
“I wish that there were better news this week,” she said, “but almost everything we’re looking at is bad news.”
The epidemic is on track to match the most widespread flu outbreak in recent memory, when in 2014-2015 the flu infected 34 million Americans.
Scientists have known something bad was coming, and those working on advances in flu medicine see it as a call to action.
“In the scientific community we have been warned about this for several months,” said Ross, the UGA professor, citing reports from the fall about the strain’s beginnings in the Southern Hemisphere. “Even though we were talking about it and medical professionals were getting ready, there was really nothing more we could do to prepare for it.
“We had already made the vaccine for this flu season. There was no way to go back and make it again.”
Ross is working on what he hopes will be a universal flu vaccine. This year’s predominant flu strain, H3N2, is very good at quickly shape-shifting to elude vaccines and immune systems, so this year’s flu vaccine, while helpful, is not as effective as those from previous years. Experts still encourage people to get a flu shot, as it may lessen the impact even for those in whom it doesn’t prevent the sickness entirely.
Ross’ vaccine is 90 percent to 95 percent effective in animal trials, he said, compared with about 30 percent for this year’s human flu vaccine. But it still must go through human trials to be proved effective and safe, and it is years away from fruition.
Schuchat offered a warning to anyone who gets the flu, then feels better, then suddenly starts to feel much worse. In such cases, immediate medical attention is critical because it could be a sign of a secondary infection that preys on the already-weakened patient’s body.
And it’s not too late to see benefit from a flu shot.
Staff writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.