47 States Report Widespread Influenza Outbreaks

Forty-seven states now have widespread outbreaks of the influenza virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We look at the Philadelphia area, where health officials say flu season arrived early this year.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

The influenza virus is on a lot of minds today. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 47 states are reporting widespread outbreaks. The flu was even mentioned several times during last night's Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills. Here's comedian Amy Poehler joking about one star who stayed home.

AMY POEHLER: Meryl Streep is not here tonight. She has the flu. And I hear she's amazing in it.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: For tens of thousands of people, though, the flu this year is no joke. The season started earlier than normal across the country. We're going to check in now with one city that's been hit hard, Philadelphia. NPR's Jeff Brady is there and has the latest.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: At a health clinic in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood there's a big orange sign on the door announcing that flu vaccinations are available today. Phyllis Rembert is concerned about the virus and doing what she can to stay healthy.

PHYLLIS REMBERT: I even carry hand sanitizer with me, because people don't realize how dangerous it can be. I have a friend now who's in the hospital that got the flu. Now she has pneumonia.

BRADY: There's a big push encouraging more people to get vaccinated. We're well into the current season and it takes a couple weeks before the vaccination can protect you. But health officials say it's still worthwhile. Philadelphia resident Lena Mercer says she tries to spread that message.

LENA MERCER: And the people that I know, I ask them. I say, did you get the flu shot? No. I say, well, that's why you got the flu. I say, go get the flu shot. It works.

BRADY: That's true most of the time. Influenza vaccine isn't perfect, but it does boost your chances of not getting sick.

DR. JOE DIMINO: The one this year is 62, 63 percent effective against what's out there.

BRADY: Dr. Joe DiMino is with the Montgomery County Health Department in suburban Philadelphia. He says Pennsylvania has plenty of vaccine on hand. Some locations around the country are reporting shortages, but those appear to be localized supply problems and not a national problem.

This has been a busy flu season and it started earlier than typical, says Mike Baysinger also with Montgomery County.

C. MICHAEL BAYSINGER: Average years, we expect to see 200 to 300 cases of influenza in Montgomery County, that's our average year. And if you look at what we have right now, it's 814.

BRADY: Baysinger says 115 people have been hospitalized and four have died because of the flu in Montgomery County. Last year's season was much lighter, only four were hospitalized and no deaths were reported. The young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are a particular concern for health officials. In Montgomery County, Baysinger says there are eight long-term care facilities with confirmed flu outbreaks. He says there are procedures to protect the other residents when an outbreak happens.

BAYSINGER: Once a facility has two or more cases of influenza in their facility, it's an automatic recommendation that they have their foods in their own rooms - they're not out in their public dining areas or their community dining areas so they can stop the spread. So it's a level of protection that we try to give these nursing home facilities.

BRADY: Baysinger says it's too soon to know if the flu season has peaked yet, since it started earlier, it may end earlier too. But he says it typically lasts well into March or April.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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