“We’re in the middle of our season,” Frieden said in a telephone briefing with reporters. “It’s worse than average. . . . And it’s a particularly severe season for the elderly.”
It’s not too late to get a flu shot, and officials urged people to do so despite spot shortages that may mean consumers have to look harder. Officials also urged those with flu symptoms, especially the elderly, young children and other high-risk groups, to start antiviral treatment early. The two FDA-approved influenza antiviral treatments are Tamiflu (oseltamivir phosphate) and Relenza (zanamivir).
As many as a third to one-half of those hospitalized for flu are not getting antiviral treatment this season, he said. Treatment within the first 48 hours is most effective and can reduce severe illness, hospitalization and death.
“We’re not doing as well as we should be doing,” Frieden said.
The numbers and rates of hospitalizations and deaths are expected to rise further in the next week or so as the season continues, he said. Twenty-nine children or teens have died this season, compared with 34 pediatric deaths reported during all of the last flu season. Maryland reported on Friday its first flu-related pediatric death since the 2009-2010 season, when there were two such deaths. No details were given.
Those at high risk include people with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, pregnant women and children with neurological disorders. If they have flu symptoms, they should get treated early, even if a rapid flu test comes back negative, he said.
In the Washington area, hospitals and physicians said the crush in the emergency rooms and their offices had eased somewhat, but overall visits remain much higher than last year, which was an unusually mild and short flu season.
“I would hope that we’ve seen the peak and may have now plateaued,” said William Frohna, chief of the emergency department at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. “Last week we were a notch busier than we are this week.”
Influenza season typically progresses in phases. After cases begin to increase, complications develop and are reflected later in reports of hospitalizations and deaths.
This year’s flu season arrived about a month before authorities normally see it, and the earliest since the 2003-04 flu season. CDC officials had warned that the early arrival and the predominant strain circulating this year could make for a bad flu season.
The primary strain is the H3N2, an influenza A virus that has been associated in the past with more severe flu seasons.
Even though this season’s vaccine is well-matched to the primary strain, bad flu seasons take the greatest toll on the elderly, who account for about 90 percent of all flu-related deaths. Each year, thousands of people die from the flu. “In a bad flu year, tens of thousands die,” Frieden said.