Stephanie Dugger, 20, gets a flu shot from nurse Bhagwati Bhakta at Mollen Immunization Clinics in Scottsdale, Ariz.(Photo: Cheryl Evans, The Arizona Republic)
NEW YORK (AP) - The worst of the flu season appears to be over.
The number of states reporting intense or widespread illnesses dropped again last week, and in a few states there was very little flu going around, U.S. health officials said Friday.
The season started earlier than normal, first in the Southeast and then spreading. But now, by some measures, flu activity has been ebbing for at least four weeks in much of the country. Flu and pneumonia deaths also dropped the last two weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
"It's likely that the worst of the current flu season is over," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.
But flu is hard to predict, he and others stressed, and there have been spikes late in the season in the past.
For now, states like Georgia and New York - where doctor's offices were jammed a few weeks ago - are reporting low flu activity. The hot spots are now the West Coast and the Southwest.
Among the places that have seen a drop: Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pa., which put up a tent outside its emergency room last month to help deal with the steady stream of patients. There were about 100 patients each day back then. Now it's down to 25 and the hospital may pack up its tent next week, said Terry Burger, director of infection control and prevention for the hospital.
"There's no question that we're seeing a decline," she said.
In early December, CDC officials announced flu season had arrived, a month earlier than usual. They were worried, saying it had been nine years since a winter flu season started like this one. That was 2003-04 - one of the deadliest seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths.
Like this year, the major flu strain was one that tends to make people sicker, especially the elderly, who are most vulnerable to flu and its complications
But back then, that year's flu vaccine wasn't made to protect against that bug, and fewer people got flu shots. The vaccine is reformulated almost every year, and the CDC has said this year's vaccine is a good match to the types that are circulating. A preliminary CDC study showed it is about 60 percent effective, which is close to the average.
So far, the season has been labeled moderately severe.
Like others, Lehigh Valley's Burger was cautious about making predictions. "I'm not certain we're completely out of the woods," with more wintry weather ahead and people likely to be packed indoors where flu can spread around, she said.
The government does not keep a running tally of flu-related deaths in adults, but has received reports of 59 deaths in children. The most - nine - were in Texas, where flu activity was still high last week. Roughly 100 children die in an average flu season, the CDC says
On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.
According to the CDC report, the number of states with intense activity is down to 19, from 24 the previous week, and flu is widespread in 38 states, down from 42.
Flu is now minimal in Florida, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
By Mike Stobbe