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Flu season still getting worse; now as bad as 2009 swine flu

Published Feb. 9, 2018

NEW YORK — The flu has further tightened its grip on the United States: This season is now as bad as the swine flu epidemic nine years ago.

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. That ties the highest level seen in the nation 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 Dr. 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 continued to surge.

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.

Some doctors say this is the worst flu season they've seen in decades. Some patients are saying that, too.

Veda Albertson, a 70-year-old retiree in Tampa, was sick for three weeks with high fever and fluid in her lungs. She said she hadn't been this sick from the flu since the 1960s, when she was a young mother who couldn't get out of bed to go to the crib of her crying baby.

"It was like, 'Wham!' It was bad. It was awful," she said of the illness that hit her on Christmas Day.

Last week, 43 states had high patient traffic for the flu, up from 42, the CDC reported.

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.

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."