UNITED STATES (NBC) - With flu cases in Boston up tenfold from last year, the mayor of Boston declared a public health emergency on Wednesday (January 09) as authorities around the United States scrambled to cope with a rising number of patients.
U.S. health authorities said the flu arrived about a month earlier than usual this year and the flu strain making most people sick -- H3N2 -- has a reputation for causing fairly severe illness, especially among the elderly.
As a result, hospitals around the country have been forced to find additional space to treat the ill and some have had to turn people away.
Mayor Thomas Menino said the number of reported infections in Boston is already 10 times higher than last season's reported caseload and said the city would begin offering free flu vaccinations on Saturday (January 12) in an effort to stem the spread.
"Boston has already seen about 700 confirmed cases," Menino told reporters. He urged residents to get vaccinated.
Part of the alarm this year, experts said, is that the flu seems so much worse when compared to last year's very late and very mild flu season, in which hospitalisation rates were low.
Although it varies widely from year to year, the flu season typically starts in December, builds to a peak in January or February and fades away by late March or early April.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention does not track all cases of flu. Instead, it measures the percentage of people who are going to their doctor complaining of influenza-like illness.
As of last Friday, the proportion of people visiting their doctor with flu symptoms had climbed from to 5.6 percent, up from 2.8 percent a month earlier. That compared with 2.2 percent at the peak of last year's mild flu season and 7.7 percent at the peak of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic.
The CDC recommends everyone over six months of age get a flu shot, especially people in high-risk groups, such as those under 5 or over 65 and people with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma or heart disease.
In Illinois last week, large numbers of sick people overwhelmed some hospitals and 24 facilities had to turn away some sick people, more than triple the seven hospitals that turned patients away in the same week last year.
Lehigh Valley Hospital, outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday (January 08) set up a large tent outside its emergency room, which it is using to see patients who arrive with less-severe flu cases.
"If they've got mild illness, we can see them, evaluate, them treat them if needed and discharge right from the tent," said Lehigh Valley Hospital director of infection control and prevention Terry Burger.
In Maine, health authorities reported a "significantly higher" than normal number of flu cases and warned residents this week to expect flu activity to remain high for the next few weeks.
In North Carolina, flu activity has been recorded at the highest levels in a decade with 14 deaths. Many hospitals there have tightened restrictions on visitors. One company, Carolinas HealthCare System, said it would restrict most visitors under age 12 fromCharlotte-area hospitals starting on Thursday (January 10) after a spike in emergency department visits for flu-like symptoms.
Public health officials urged people to stay home from work or school if they become ill, but not necessarily to rush to the hospital, particularly if they are between the ages of 5 and 65 and otherwise healthy.