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Chicago, like the nation, in midst of 'very bad' flu season

Outbreak has reached epidemic proportions, CDC says; demand for vaccine grows

By Patrick Svitek and Bridget Doyle

Chicago Tribune reporters

1:05 AM EST, January 12, 2013

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At Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, the staff is working extra shifts, and emergency room waits for patients can last up to two hours in the worst flu season emergency department director Ginger Diven has ever seen.

"Things are incredibly hectic," Diven said. "We are at peak capacity for our hospital. We actually have three overflow units open to handle the excess volume."

Influenza has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, with 7.3 percent of deaths last week caused by pneumonia and the flu, a tick above the 7.2 percent threshold for epidemic status, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

The Midwest is among nine of 10 regions in the country with "elevated" flu activity, confirming that seasonal flu has spread across the country and reached high levels several weeks before the usual time of late January or February.

The Chicago Department of Public Health is reporting that the number of flu cases in the city remains above average but dipped slightly last week, when 31 people wound up in the hospital with the flu, compared with 35 the week before.

But Dr. Emily Landon, an epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, isn't convinced the worst is over. Although it's "nice to think" an early start to the flu season means an early end, Landon hinted that logic may be misguided.

"Instead of shifting the curve, it's just a bigger curve," Landon said. "All leading indicators point to it being a very bad season. ... It's pretty awful."

In addition to filling emergency rooms, people are lining up for belated fuel shots in an effort to ward off illness.

Among those getting a flu shot Friday was Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was among the dozens who visited the basement clinic of the city's Uptown Neighborhood Health Center on Friday. Inside the small examination room, Emanuel told the doctor it was his first time getting the shot. In less than two minutes, he was stuck in his left arm, quickly changed back into his business shirt and then zipped out of the clinic.

It was also Jim Ross' first time getting the shot, he said. After reading about the number of people that had fallen sick recently, he decided he would go get treated before he fell ill himself.

"I saw the hype on TV. I wasn't too concerned, but I'm traveling soon and I figured I get it," the 60-year-old said as he waited in the lobby.

From Sept. 30 to Jan. 5, 121 people were hospitalized with the flu in Chicago, nearly double the number from last year during that period. Statewide, 81 people had been hospitalized with flu-like systems as of Jan. 5, and four people have died, according to the state Health Department.

"People are aware, and now they're scared," said Gloria Negrillo, a certified medical assistant who was called in to help out at the Uptown clinic Friday. "They don't want to get sick, and they want to take steps to prevent getting the flu."

Dr. Catherine Counard, director of the Skokie Health Department, said this year's flu recently slammed an elementary school in the north suburb, affecting 84 children and eight adults in less than a week.

Encouraging local children and adults to get vaccinated was the goal of the Health Department this season, she said. Every fall, the Health Department administers 3,000 flu shots, treating about 5 percent of the village's population, Counard said.

The milder weather may have some putting off the flu vaccine, but Counard said it's still important to get one for those who've been putting it off. "Until more people get vaccinated, we'll continue to see these issues," Counard said.

Even those who already came down with one strand of the flu should still get the shot, she said.

"There are three strains of flu in the vaccine, so people who've had one strain of the flu are still susceptible to the other two strains until they're vaccinated," she said.

Curtis Allen, spokesman for the CDC, said this year's flu vaccine is considered 62 percent effective in preventing the virus.

That is considered "moderate" effectiveness and means that almost 4 in 10 people who receive the vaccine and are exposed to the virus will nevertheless become infected.

Although 60 percent prevention is about average coverage for a flu vaccine, Allen said, the CDC is working to make it even more effective.

"We realize the vaccine isn't 100 percent, but we're doing research with the government and manufacturers to develop more effective vaccines," Allen said. "But we're not there yet. "

The current vaccine carries three strains of the flu virus, Allen said, but the CDC hopes to have a new vaccine with four strains of the flu virus released possibly as early as next year. This extra strain would increase the vaccine's efficacy, he said.

At Good Samaritan, Diven said officials are offering incentives including "springing for lunch" to show appreciation for staff members who put in extra hours during the busy flu season.

"It's more than just the nurses and doctors, it's our dietary, radiology and even our housekeeping staff too," Diven said. "It's affecting everyone."

Tribune reporter Lolly Bowean and Reuters contributed.

bdoyle@tribune.com, psvitek@tribune.com