By DOUG ESSER
The Associated Press
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Flu season started early this winter, and includes a strain that tends to make people sicker.
Health officials have forecast a potentially bad flu season, following last year’s unusually mild one.
The latest numbers, however, hint that the flu season may already have peaked in some spots.
Flu was widespread in 47 states last week, up from 41 the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.
Many cases may be mild. The only states without widespread flu are California, Mississippi and Hawaii.
The hardest hit states fell to 24 from 29, with large numbers of people getting treated for flu-like illness.
Dropped off that list were Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina in the South, the first region hit this flu season.
Recent flu reports have included the holidays when some doctor’s offices were closed, so it will probably take a couple more weeks to know if the flu has peaked in some places or grown stronger in others, CDC officials said.
“Only time will tell how moderate or severe this flu season will be,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a Friday teleconference with reporters.
Nationally, 20 children have died from the flu.
There is no running tally of adult deaths, but the CDC estimates that the flu kills about 24,000 people in an average year.
Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older, and health officials say it is not too late to get vaccinated.
Nearly 130 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed this year, and at least 112 million have been used.
Vaccine is still available, but supplies may have run low in some locations, health officials say.
The Associated Press
Previously the flu had been at a regional level. It was upgraded in a new report, meaning the flu is in more than half of the communities in the state, said spokesman Donn Moyer.
(See info box at right, "Flu more widespread in US; eases off in some areas," about the national flu picture.)
Widespread flu is not unusual, but the activity appears to be increasing and could be worse than the previous two seasons, which were considered mild, Moyer said.
“We get to widespread flu activity in our state almost every season,” Moyer said.
The activity seems to be a little early. It typically peaks in January and February.
“We're ramping up,” Moyer said.
Six people have died of the flu so far this season, including one child, all in Western Washington. There were 18 flu deaths in 2011-2012 and 36 the previous year. The most state deaths were 98 in the swine flu season of 2009-2010.
“Every one of these deaths is tragic, especially one that happens to have been a child,” Moyer said. “But the numbers are not unusual.”
The department reported the first three deaths in December: a 12-year-old Pierce County boy, and a man in his 80s and a woman in her 70s in King County.
Three more December deaths were reported last week by Snohomish County: a Bothell woman in her 40s, an Everett woman in her 80s and an Edmonds woman in her 80s.
Those are lab-confirmed flu deaths. Officials believe the flu is a complicating factor in more deaths.
The department urges residents to take the risk seriously and head off the aches, stuffy nose and fatigue with a flu shot. There's no shortage of the vaccine in the state, Moyer said. The shots are recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months. The state pays for the vaccine for children, although parents may still be charged a fee for the injection.
“We have our fingers crossed people will get shots and do the other things to protect yourself such as hand-washing,” he said.
Health officials recommend that people with the flu stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone to avoid spreading the virus. Rest, liquids and over the counter medicines are common treatments. Antibiotics don't work against a viral illness.