While the flu season is tapering off in McLean County, influenza has further tightened its grip across the U.S., making this season as bad as the swine flu epidemic nine years ago.

A new government report shows 1 of every 13 visits to the doctor last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu. That ties the highest level seen in the U.S. during swine flu in 2009.

And it surpasses every winter flu season since 2003, when the government changed the way it measures flu.

In McLean County, the number of influenza cases continues to decline after flu hit early and hard in December, said Laurel Mode, infection preventionist at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, Normal, and JoAnne Guymon, infection preventionist at OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington.

But both warned last week that flu remains widespread in McLean County even though the number of cases has declined since mid-January.

“We have seen fewer confirmed flu cases at the end of January, however, flu activity is still widespread and it is difficult to predict if we will continue to decrease or if we may see it increase again as it has in some parts of the country,” Mode said. “People should still take reasonable precautions to avoid exposure, and if not yet vaccinated, it is still recommended.”

Hundreds of people have tested positive for flu in McLean County since late fall and three people died of influenza around Christmas time.

Nationally, the season started early and has been driven by a nasty type of flu that tends to put more people in the hospital and cause more deaths than other more common flu bugs.

But its long-lasting intensity has surprised experts, who are still sorting out why it's been so bad. Flu usually peaks in February.

Some doctors say this is the worst flu season they've seen in decades. 

Last week, 43 states had high patient traffic for the flu, up from 42, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. Flu remained widespread in every state except Hawaii and Oregon and hospitalizations continued to climb.

So far, however, deaths this season from the flu and flu-related pneumonia have lagged a little behind some recent bad seasons. There are as many as 56,000 deaths connected to the flu during a bad year.

The CDC said the amount of suspected flu cases at doctor office and hospitals last week matched that seen in 2009, when a new swine flu epidemic swept the country and panicked many people. Swine flu, also called pandemic H1N1, was a new strain that hadn't been seen before. It first hit that spring, at the tail end of the winter season, but doctor visits hit their height in late October.

This flu season, hospitalization rates have surpassed the nasty season of the winter of 2014-2015, when the vaccine was a poor match to the main bug.

Health officials have said this year's vaccine targets the flu viruses that are currently making people sick. However, preliminary studies out of Australia and Canada have found the shot was only 10 to 20 percent effective in those countries. How well it is working the U.S. won't be known until next week.

This year, illnesses are commonly being reported in people who got a flu shot. Albertson said she did in late October. Jossi didn't.

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