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Doctor: Flu spreads exponentially, like a chain letter

Health officials say the nationwide flu outbreak has reached epidemic proportions. There has been a significant increase in cases and flu-related deaths.

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The centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reports widespread flu outbreaks in 47 of the 50 states.

Twenty children have died from influenza nationwide.

The nationwide reach of this year's flu epidemic can be blamed on its early start.

"The earlier the flu season starts, the worse it becomes," Dr. Len Horovitz, lung specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital, told CBS News, "because it usually rolls through all the holiday madness and that involves a lot of people, and so the spread is like a chain letter -- it's exponential."

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a public health emergency over the weekend, after some 20,000 flu cases were reported in the state - five times as many as last year.

The order allows pharmacists to administer the vaccine to children as young as six months old.

"There has always been a recommendation to vaccinate children six months and older, it's just now pharmacies may be able to dispense the vaccine," said Dr. Horovitz. "[The] decision was made because of the epidemic, and children are very vulnerable."

Of the 135 million doses of flu vaccine manufactured this season, 128 million have been administered. And as word spreads about the severity of this year's outbreak, the lines for those remaining doses are long.

Demand for flu vaccine is high -- and supplies are running low. "We're hearing of spot shortages," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The germ is easy to spread. Dr. Horovitz says all it takes is one sneeze.

"If someone with the flu sneezes within six feet of this desk, the virus may last here for up to 2 days," he said. "And I can touch it. It's OK if I touch it, but i must wash my hands before I touch my face, or I could introduce the germs into my body and get the flu."

And any public surface could carry remnants of the bug. "You know, I never thought about the gas pumps, but everybody touches it, so I imagine it would be pretty dirty," said Dr. Horovitz.