The number of states with widespread infections nearly doubled to 24 in the past week, and the season has not yet peaked nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.
Worried parents are rushing to find shots even though many local health departments and doctor's offices are either out or about to run out of the vaccine.
Doctors are particularly concerned about children this flu season.
The lessons today in many Oklahoma classrooms centered on the flu. Kids were taught to sneeze into the crooks of their arms -- and not their hands. Younger children were instructed on the proper way to wash their hands -- to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
"I really was desperate," said Joy Thompson of Valencia, Calif., who recently got the shots for her two young daughters.
She found 300 people waiting to get the vaccine at her daughters' pediatrician's office Saturday, but couldn't endure the three-hour line. She later got the vaccine from her mother, who is a nurse.
When it comes to kids and the flu there are two stories: one from the field where doctors are being besieged by sick kids and worried parents, and another from the government which continues to say it's too early to tell if this flu is particularly dangerous to children.
Fueling all the concern is the sobering fact that at least 23 children have died so far this flu season.
Some of the people who track infectious diseases call the number alarming, but to date there has been little information available about the deaths that would either allay or confirm fears.
But CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports that more than half of the children who died had an underlying illness such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes, but no information is being made public about whether or not the children were vaccinated.
That information would clearly put the deaths in perspective and answer questions about who's at risk. In the meantime hospitals report they are just trying to cope.
"Right now this is ten times the normal activity we would see in January or February," says Craig Gilliam of Arkansas Children's Hospital.
Parents are being advised not to rush children to the emergency room with a common cold, but should be on the lookout for symptoms like headache, high fever and no energy.
Until more questions can be answered about this flu and it's effect on children, the CDC is reminding parents to employ simple prevention methods like: wash hands, wash toys, stay home when you're sick.
The CDC plans to watch flu complications among children closely. Flu and its complications are the sixth-leading cause of death nationally among children age 4 and younger, according to the CDC.
In many cities, schools have shut down. Emergency rooms have been filled with sick children. And doctors' offices have been forced to turn away droves of people seeking flu shots.
Some experts predict this year's death toll easily could surpass the annual average of 36,000.
Health officials are unsure why the outbreak has hit so early, why it has caused so many problems — particularly in the West — and why it seems to be so lethal in children.
States are not required to track the number of flu cases, so the exact total is not clear.
Many cases are never classified as the flu, but doctors say they are seeing a clear increase this year.
"If it were me, I'd be on the phone to your doctor, calling around to see if you could find some" vaccine, said Dr. Randall Todd, Nevada's epidemiologist.
Nearly the entire western half of the country — California being the major exception — is now considered to have widespread flu. Last week, 13 states had widespread outbreaks.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the government had arranged for 100,000 doses of adult vaccine to be shipped from Aventis Pasteur immediately and distributed based on each state's population. In addition, 150,000 doses of children's vaccine are expected to be shipped to the states by January.
The nation's two producers of flu shots reported last week that they had shipped their entire supply of about 80 million doses. However, Aventis had set aside 250,000 doses at the CDC's request last week when it became clear that shortages might develop.
Bianka Ortega, receptionist for After Hours Pediatrics in Las Vegas, has been turning away frustrated parents. The office does have flu vaccines left, but they are reserved for poor patients.
She said parents have been getting "a little bit irate."
"If you can't get the vaccine, it's also very important to remember that people should stay home when they're sick, not go out into an environment where they might spread flu to somebody else and do the common sense things like keep their hands clean and exercise good respiratory hygiene, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough and that will help protect others as well," said Gerberding.
In Colorado, the good news is that the outbreak appears to be on its way out. State health officials said the flu has reached its peak in the Denver area.
"We were certainly inundated with tons of patients" in the last few weeks, said Allison Hamm, spokeswoman for Denver Health Medical Center. "It has certainly slowed down significantly."
One of the hardest hit communities was Malad, Idaho, a town of about 2,000 people near the Utah state line that virtually shut down in the past week because so many people were ill. Church services and Christmas programs were canceled, as was the wrestling match and drill team show. Even Santa had to postpone his visit with the children.
Despite the severity of the early outbreak, health experts are not ready to predict just how bad the flu season will be. The season still may peak as early as December, rather than February, which is the norm.
As for why the West is having the most cases, experts aren't sure, though a second flu death was confirmed today in New Mexico.
"I don't have an explanation," said Lisa Jackson, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington. "I don't know if that's just a chance thing or what's going on this year."