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Farley: 'Severe' Strain Of Flu Reaches Epidemic Proportions In New York City

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- The flu is currently at epidemic levels across the five boroughs, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley announced Thursday.

Officials said a full 5 percent of emergency room visits are flu-related.

"It's a bad year. We've got lots of flu, it's mainly type AH3N2, which tends to be a little more severe. So we're seeing plenty of cases of flu and plenty of people sick with flu," Farley told reporters including WCBS 880's Rich Lamb.

CDC Talks Flu With 1010 WINS

To protect against contracting the flu, Farley urged people to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough. And he said the flu shot can still help protect against getting sick.

"Our message for any people who are listening to this is it's still not too late to get your flu shot. If you haven't gotten the flu yet and you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, you could still get it," Farley said.

Farley: 'Severe' Strain Of Flu Reaches Epidemic Proportions In New York City

Mayor Michael Bloomberg got a flu shot in October but still got the disease last month. Still, Bloomberg said that won't stop him from getting vaccinated every year, CBS 2's Marcia Kramer reported.

"Anybody that doesn't think so is just missing an opportunity to protect themselves. There's no guarantees in life. You can take a flu shot, walk across the street and get hit by a car. It doesn't mean you shouldn't take your flu shot," Bloomberg said.

Doctors agree.

"If you get a flu shot, even if you don't get the type of flu that was covered in the flu shot, the likelihood is you'll have a more mild case of the flu and that there will be less complications," said Dr. Stuart Kessler of Elmhurst Hospital.

"You'd rather be feeling a little lousy for a couple days than getting deathly ill for a week," Farley added.

Elsewhere around the region, flu levels are rising.

"We've seen a very high uptick in cases in the last week," Englewood Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Ashwin Jathavedam told 1010 WINS' Al Jones. "Kind of right in the throes of it. But we haven't had a big outbreak in a few years, so I think we were due."

Farley: 'Severe' Strain Of Flu Reaches Epidemic Proportions In New York City

On Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo received his flu shot from the state health commissioner. After getting his shot at a press conference Thursday, Cuomo received a lollipop from Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah.

"It is a serious situation," the governor said.

Shah said more than 19,000 flu cases have been reported this year, compared to a little more than 4,000 last year.

"Last week, laboratory-confirmed cases were reported in all 57 counties and all five boroughs," said Howard Glaser, Cuomo's director of state operations.

New Jersey has also seen a huge a increase in the virus. At Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, a patient died from the flu on Wednesday. Dr. Thomas Birch said he hasn't seen so many flu cases since the outbreak of swine flu in 2009.

"More patients in the last two weeks then in all of last year combined," Birch told CBS 2's Cindy Hsu.

So many people are heading to the hospital that the rapid test kits that take just 30 minutes to diagnose the flu are on back-order nationwide.

"I experienced flu-like symptoms since Tuesday -- dizziness, fever, a sore throat," emergency room patient Fernando Rodriguez of Carlstadt, N.J. told CBS 2's Hsu.

While the numbers are way up, Dr. Birch said there is no reason to panic and noted there is plenty you can do to protect yourself.

"The only value of alarm is if it prompts you to do something and that first is get vaccinated," he told Hsu.

Experts advise seeking medical attention if you're sick and have prominent symptoms. But with the emergency rooms so overloaded, hospitals are telling people to see their primary care physicians first, Hsu reported.

Doctors say another way to protect yourself against the flu is to wear a surgical face mask. While they're not popular in the U.S., experts say they're incredibly effective.

To avoid spreading the flu, doctors say if you're sick it is best to stay home.

It's also important to know you can be infected with the virus without showing any symptoms for up to three days, according to the experts.

Flu usually doesn't blanket the country until late January or February, but it is already widespread in more than 40 states. However, health officials said the data is indicating that this will be a moderate flu season.

The early onslaught has resulted in a spike in hospitalizations, prompting hospitals to take steps to deal with the influx and protect other patients from getting sick, including restricting visits from children, requiring family members to wear masks, and banning anyone with flu symptoms from maternity wards.

One hospital in Allentown, Pa., this week set up a tent for a steady stream of patients with flu symptoms.

But so far, "what we're seeing is a typical flu season,'' said Terry Burger, director of infection control and prevention for the hospital, Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest.

On Wednesday, Boston declared a public health emergency, and all the flu activity has caused some to question whether this year's flu shot is working.

There's a new flu vaccine each year, based on the best guess of what flu viruses will be strongest that year. This year's vaccine is well-matched to what's going around. The government estimates that between a third and a half of Americans have gotten the vaccine.

But the vaccine isn't foolproof, and even those who were vaccinated can still get sick. At best, the vaccine may be only 75 percent effective in younger people and even less so in the elderly and people with weak immune systems.

Health officials are analyzing the vaccine's effectiveness, but early indications are that about 60 percent of all vaccinated people have been protected from the flu. That's in line with how effective flu vaccines have been in other years.

On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.

Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

Most people with flu have a mild illness and can help themselves and protect others by staying home and resting. But people with severe symptoms should see a doctor. They may be given antiviral drugs or other medications to ease symptoms.

The flu season typically runs until May, Jones reported.

Have you gotten a flu shot, or the flu, this season? Offer your comments below...

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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