HEALTHY LIVING
01/11/2013 01:10 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2013

Flu Outbreak 2013: Many Americans Caught Off-Guard; CDC Unveils Updated Numbers

Sarah Yokubaitis put off getting the flu vaccine.

"To tell you the truth, I'm terrified of needles," said Yokubaitis, as she sat in a waiting line for the shot on Thursday night.

Her fiance, James Madigan, had finally dragged her into the Duane Reade pharmacy on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She's due for ankle surgery. They both know that likely means more chances for catching the bug in the hospital.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Friday that the country is facing a particularly bad flu season -- one that struck early and is "likely to last for several more weeks," according to CDC director Dr. Tom Friedman. The disease is now widespread in 47 states, up from 41 last week. The number of pediatric deaths is also climbing. Two more deaths this week brings the total to 20 on the season.

As hospitals deal with the massive influx of sick patients and many pharmacies dole out their last vaccines, the CDC warns that the worst may still be to come.

"Some indicators continue to rise as others have fallen slightly," Lyn Finelli, chief of surveillance and outbreak response for the CDC's influenza division, told The Huffington Post. "It's too early to say exactly what this means. Some regions may have peaked while other parts of the country are still on the upswing."

Flu seasons can be highly unpredictable, Finelli explained. Between 1976 and 2007, the number of deaths per season due to the virus ranged from around 3,000 to 49,000. This season's outbreak may appear all the worse given that last year's flu season fell on the milder end of the spectrum.

So what's made this year so different from the last? According to Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, a flu season's severity boils down to the susceptibility of the population and the types of viruses vying to infect.

Predominant in the air this year is an H3N2 virus. "That virus is always associated with high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths," said Finelli. "It hasn't circulated in recent years, so there are a lot of susceptibles. It has the opportunity to make a lot of people sick."

Scientists did spot the emergence of this particular virus last year, which is why it was included in this season's vaccine. But that's not always enough to thwart an epidemic. For one thing, a flu shot doesn't guarantee protection from the virus. Friedman explained on a Friday press call that people getting this year's vaccine will be about 60 percent less likely to end up at a doctor's office with the flu.

"What we've known for a long time is that the flu vaccine is far from perfect," said Friedman, referencing new data that points to a effectiveness rate of 62 percent. "But it's still by far the best tool we have to prevent the flu."

The bigger problem, according to experts, is how few people have chosen to get the shots. As of the latest survey in late November, only 37 percent of the U.S. had been vaccinated.

"That's pretty typical," said Harvard's Hanage. "And it's not enough to make much of a dent in transmission."

A vaccine is particularly important for people over the age of 65, young children over the age of 6 months and those with compromised immune systems.

"If you have a child under 6 months, as I do, the best means of protecting them is to make sure the people around them are vaccinated," said Hanage. "I've had my flu shot."

Hanage also emphasizes that people who start feeling the inklings of the flu -- a fever and a cough -- give their coworkers a break and stay home. He also reminds people to cover coughs with their elbow.

Still, Friedman emphasized that "vaccination is the single-most important step you can take."

As more and more people are taking the hint and seeking the shot, more and more are striking out. Spotty local shortages are being reported around the country, including in drug stores on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Wes Benter of East Harlem acknowledged that he was "one of those last-minute people," as he stepped up to the pharmacy counter at the Upper West Side Duane Reade.

"I just kept putting it off. I've been working a lot," said Benter, adding that he was on a business trip in California when his office offered free shots. After hearing news reports of the outbreak this week, Benter said he knew he needed to get in and beat the rush. His final push: an email alert from his company concerning a "widespread flu outbreak" that was getting "worse by the day."

Yokubaitis and Benter were far from alone. Pharmacist Keila Mena estimated her team had given 40 shots already on Thursday. And given the growing crowd that night, she predicted the store's last seven vials wouldn't last long.

"We ordered more, but don't know when they'll come in," said Mena. "No one wanted shots at the beginning of the season. We were basically begging people."

On Thursday night's episode of "OutFront," CNN's Erin Burnett interviewed Ian Lipkin, an infectious disease expert at Columbia University. "We are ill prepared for this," Lipkin told her. "We frankly don't have enough vaccine: 135 million doses, and we have almost twice as many people in the U.S."

Bioterrorism expert Col. Randall Larsen, also on the show, underscored the unfortunate lack of preparedness despite "9 months of warning that this flu was coming."

This reality, he suggested, makes the idea of novel viruses such as the one portrayed in the movie "Contagion" all the more more worrisome. HuffPost has previously reported how cuts to public health funding may be raising the risks.

"I think the biggest threat to your family is infectious disease, not Russian missiles or terrorist bombs," Larsen told Burnett.

As for this year's seasonal flu, CDC's Finelli did note that "if people check on the locaters and call around, vaccines should still be available."

Yokubaitis and Benter had to dish out a few more bucks than expected for the flu shot, as a cheaper version, Fluvirin Multidose, had already run dry at this Duane Reade. Fortunately for Yokubaitis, the pricier shot of Fluzone Intradermal brought a finer needle and less pain.

For Benter, he said the higher price tag was still well worth the "peace of mind."

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