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Severe cases in flu epidemic continue to rise, health officials say

Ariel Hart, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

ATLANTA -- 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.

"We were hoping to have better news today," Shuchat said. "Overall hospitalizations are now significantly higher than what we've seen since current tracking began" in 2010.

Dr. Gabriel Onofre, who works at the Mercy Care clinic for the poor in Chamblee, Ga., 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.

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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, many 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. In Atlanta, Grady Memorial Hospital brought in a specialized tractor-trailer with 14 medical beds and parked it outside the emergency room.

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