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If you thought flu season was over, you’re wrong. It’s as bad as the 2009 swine flu

A radiology technician looks at a chest X-ray of a child suffering from flu symptoms at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga., Feb. 9. A government report out Friday shows 1 of every 13 visits to the doctor last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu.
A radiology technician looks at a chest X-ray of a child suffering from flu symptoms at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga., Feb. 9. A government report out Friday shows 1 of every 13 visits to the doctor last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu. AP

NEW YORK – The flu has further tightened its grip on the U.S. This season is now as bad as the swine flu epidemic nine years ago.

A government report out Friday shows one of every 13 visits to the doctor last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu. That ties the highest level seen in the U.S. during swine flu in 2009.

And it surpasses every winter flu season since 2003, when the government changed the way it measures flu.

“I wish that there were better news this week, but almost everything we’re looking at is bad news,” said Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flu season usually takes off in late December and peaks around February. This season started early and was widespread in many states by December. Early last month, it hit what seemed like peak levels – but then continued to surge.

Mary Anne Jackson, the chief of the infectious diseases section at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said the Kansas City hospitals and its affiliated clinics had treated about 3,000 confirmed cases of influenza through Wednesday, a record for this time of year.

And it didn’t seem to be letting up.

“We continue to see an increase in the number of flu cases,” Jackson said through a hospital spokeswoman.

Jackson also said Children’s Mercy was seeing an increase in hospitalizations related to flu complications like sinusitis and pneumonia, but so far had experienced no flu-related deaths.

Wesley Healthcare in Wichita said it had recorded two pediatric flu deaths.

The season has been driven by a nasty type of flu that tends to put more people in the hospital and cause more deaths than other more common flu bugs. Still, its long-lasting intensity has surprised experts, who are still sorting out why it’s been so bad. One possibility is that the vaccine is doing an unusually poor job; U.S. data on effectiveness is expected next week.

Last week, 43 states had high patient traffic for the flu, up from 42, the CDC reported. Flu remained widespread in every state except Hawaii and Oregon and hospitalizations continued to climb.

“It’s beginning to feel like a marathon,” said Dr. Anthony Marchetti, emergency department medical director at Upson Regional Medical Center, a 115-bed hospital in rural Georgia. A quarter of the hospital’s emergency department visits are patients with flu, and the hospital has added nursing staff and placed beds in halls to accommodate the increase, he said.

“It just means we have to keep on keeping on. We’re getting used to it,” Marchetti said.

So far, it has not been a remarkably bad year for flu deaths. Flu and flu-related pneumonia deaths have lagged a little behind some recent bad seasons. The CDC counts flu deaths in children and there have been 63 so far. They have gone as high as about 170 in a season. Overall, there are estimated to be as many as 56,000 deaths linked to the flu during a bad year.

But reports of deaths – some in otherwise healthy children and young adults – have caused growing fear and concern, health officials acknowledge.

On Friday, Delisah Revell brought her 10-month-old daughter to the Upson Regional emergency room. “I heard how bad it is and I didn’t want to take any chances,” said Revell, who drove 30 minutes to get to the hospital in Thomaston.

The CDC said the amount of suspected flu cases at doctor’s offices and hospital emergency rooms last week matched that seen in 2009, when a new swine flu pandemic swept the world. Swine flu was considered a pandemic because it was a new strain that hadn’t been seen before. It first hit that spring, at the tail end of the winter season, but doctor visits hit their height in late October during a second wave. This year’s flu is an epidemic, but is not a new strain.

This flu season, hospitalization rates have surpassed the nasty season of the winter of 2014-2015, when the vaccine was a poor match to the main bug.

It has hit hard at schools in the Kansas City area and beyond. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported seven school closures due to flu throughout the state as of Feb. 3.

St. Michael the Archangel, a Catholic school in Leawood, closed earlier this month and Barbara Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the Johnson County Health Department, said flu activity has been high and rising at the county’s other schools as well.

This week there were 19 schools in the county reporting 10 percent or more students absent, up from 10 schools the week before.

“The absences are a result of various illnesses – flu, strep (throat), GI (gastrointestinal) issues, etc.,” Mitchell said via email.

Health officials have said this year’s vaccine targets the flu viruses that are currently making people sick, including the swine flu virus that has become a regular winter threat. However, preliminary studies out of Australia and Canada have found the shot was only 10 to 20 percent effective in those countries against the H3N2 strain that’s causing the most suffering this winter.

Doctors say they’re a bit bewildered as to why this season is so intense.

“It is surprising,” said Dr. James Steinberg, chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta. “It’s not a hugely new strain. So why is it so severe? I don’t think we know.”

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