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This flu season has now reached pandemic levels (but it’s not technically a pandemic)

Here's a look at how the flu virus infects the body and produces symptoms. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

This flu season is turning out to be so intense that the number of people seeking care at doctors' offices and emergency rooms has surged to levels not reported since the peak of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, federal officials said Friday.

For yet another week, the flu continues to get worse. “We were hoping to have better news,” said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This does not mean we’re having a pandemic,” Schuchat said. “But it is a signal of how very intense the flu season has been. We may be on track to break some recent records.”

Pandemics occur when there is a new strain of virus for which people have no previous exposure. That's not the case here, because the seasonal strains that are circulating this year are not new. But the predominant one, H3N2, is a particularly nasty strain that is associated with more complications, hospitalizations and deaths, especially among children, those older than 65 and people with certain chronic conditions.

Another 10 children died in the week ending Feb. 2, bringing the total number of child deaths since this flu season began to at least 63. This is the number of reported deaths and probably does not include all children who have died. States are not required to report adult flu deaths.

Flu activity is still widespread across the country, the latest data show. Overall hospitalizations are also now significantly higher than what officials have normally seen this time of year since CDC began using this tracking system in 2010, Schuchat said. In particular, officials are seeing unusually high levels of hospitalizations in non-elderly adults, with the rates for 50-to-64-year-olds significantly higher than what they were at the same period in the severe 2014-2015 season with the same predominant flu strain.

The latest weekly report shows 1 out of every 13 doctor visits last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu, matching the peak levels during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. It was higher than any other seasonal flu season since 2003, when officials changed the way flu is tracked.

“We don’t have any signs of hospitalizations leveling off yet,” Schuchat said in a telephone briefing for reporters.

Concern over the deadly flu season was one reason Sen. John McCain delayed his return to Washington during key legislative deliberations, his daughter Meghan said Wednesday.

In an interview with Politico’s “Women Rule” podcast, the Arizona Republican’s daughter said her father, recovering from chemotherapy for aggressive brain cancer and a viral infection in December, is taking precautions that are keeping him in Arizona.

While the H3N2 strain, a type of influenza A virus, continues to dominate, officials are now also seeing increases in the proportion of influenza B viruses in this 11th week of the flu season.

One reason for this unusually intense flu season is probably the vaccine’s lower effectiveness against the predominant strain. Canadian researchers recently suggested the H3N2 component of the vaccine is about 17 percent effective in preventing infection.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that” for the vaccine’s effectiveness against the H3N2 in the United States, Schuchat said. But she and others have said the vaccine performs better against other strains, and is about 55 percent effective against influenza B viruses that are on the rise. Flu shots also reduce the severity of illness. CDC is expected to soon release a preliminary analysis of this season’s vaccine effectiveness.

Officials say it is not too late to get a flu shot. They don’t know how long this season will last — it has yet to reach its peak — and it is possible to get infected by flu more than once.

Angie Barwise, a 58-year-old mother and grandmother from Fort Worth, was diagnosed with the flu twice this season and died last week following complications from the illness. She had been diagnosed around the holidays with the flu, along with bronchitis and strep, her family told Fox affiliate KDFW. Her family said she had not received the vaccine.

Doctors gave her antibiotics and the antiviral medication Tamiflu, and she started to bounce back. But almost exactly a month later, her family said, she was in the emergency room with a different strain of the virus. But this time, KDFW reported, Barwise also had pneumonia and went into in septic shock, a life-threatening medical condition and a known complication of the virus, according to CDC.

On Saturday — a week after her second bout of the flu began — she died.

“I've outlived my own daughter,” her mother, Eileen Smith, told the news station this week. “I'm 83 years old, and I've outlived her. It shouldn't be that way.”

As health-care professionals scramble to combat the virus and care for people seeking treatment, there continue to be local shortages of antiviral medication, officials said. Unlike most years when flu activity starts and ends at different times and at different places across the country, virtually the entire country has been slammed with intense levels of flu at the same time, so there are more prescriptions for antiviral drugs than previous years, Schuchat said.

CDC officials are working with pharmacies, health plans and others in the health-care system to have pharmacies stock larger amounts of medicine and allow brand-name drugs to be substituted for generics, which often carry lower out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

Still, the cost of prescription antivirals has led some patients to hesitate using them, with tragic consequences.

Heather Holland, a schoolteacher from Willow Park, Tex., was recently diagnosed with the flu and prescribed the generic form of Tamiflu. But her husband, Frank, told the Wall Street Journal that once she discovered it cost her $116 under her insurance plan, she decided against it.

“It’s principle with her. She’s a very frugal person in general, always has been,” he said.

Frank Holland told the Journal that when he found out that his wife had refused to fill the prescription, he did it. “I made her start taking it,” he told the newspaper.

But Holland was not able to fight the flu — her family said she died Feb. 4, less than a week after she first started to experience symptoms of the virus.

Read more:

What you should know about the flu season this year

This flu season's hospitalizations are highest in nearly a decade

CDC to cut by 80 percent efforts to prevent global disease outbreak