The most severe flu season in years has killed 37 people in Georgia, a toll that will likely rise as infections are expected to continue for several weeks, state health officials said Wednesday.
“If you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, absolutely do so,” Dr. Cherie Drenzek, Georgia’s state epidemiologist, told a news conference at the state Department of Public Health in Atlanta.
All U.S. states except for Hawaii reported widespread flu in January, with doctor visits for flu-like symptoms hitting their highest level nationwide since the deadly 2009 swine flu pandemic, which was blamed for 81 deaths in Georgia.
The seasonal flu this fall and winter isn’t that severe, said Dr. J. Patrick O’Neal, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health. But flu-related deaths have risen quickly since the first week of January, when there were only five confirmed deaths. As of Wednesday, the statewide toll stood at 37.
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“I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number grow considerably as confirmations continue,” O’Neal said.
More than two-thirds of the dead in Georgia have been people older than 65. Only one child has died, and that person was an adolescent, O’Neal said.
Roughly 700 people have been hospitalized with flu infections this season in an eight-county region of metro Atlanta, the only region of Georgia where O’Neal’s agency monitors hospitalizations. And flu symptoms account for about 12 percent of visits to doctors, outpatient clinics and emergency rooms in Georgia, which Drenzek said is the highest in the state since 2009.
Young children and the elderly are at greatest risk from flu, a contagious respiratory illness spread by a virus. It can cause a miserable but relatively mild sickness in many people, while others become severely ill. In a bad season in the U.S., as many as 56,000 deaths are flu-related.
Health officials say this year’s flu shot correctly targets the strains that are making Americans sick, including the Type A H3N2 flu virus that’s causing the most illnesses.
O’Neal urged Georgians to be mindful of simple precautions that help keep the flu from spreading — frequent hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home from school or work when flu symptoms appear.
Drenzek said she hopes the peak of the flu season will pass soon. But don’t expect it to end quite yet.
“I do think we have several weeks of flu activity ahead of us,” Drenzek said.