NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a public health emergency Saturday, as the flu epidemic rocked the nation and hospitals and urgent care centers saw huge crowds.
The declaration allows pharmacists to administer flu shots to anyone between the ages of 6 months and 18 years.
While the public health emergency may sound scary, Dr. Mary O'Brien at Columbia University said it is no reason to panic.
"The majority of us get the flu, we feel miserable for a week and then we get better," she said.
O'Brien told WCBS 880's Jim Smith the main aspect of Cuomo's order opens up availability for children to get vaccinated.
She added that the governor's declaration will also raise awareness, and some more people will get the flu shot.
"It's a very safe shot. It's an inactive shot," she said. "It's not a live vaccine, so it has very few side effects."
Cuomo Declares Public Health Emergency As Flu Epidemic Persists
As of Saturday, a total of 19,128 cases of influenza had been reported in New York state for the season, compared with 4,404 for all last season, according to Cuomo's office. As of last week, the state Department of Health had received reports of 2,884 patients hospitalized with the flu, compared with 1,169 last year.
"We are experiencing the worst flu season since at least 2009, and influenza activity in New York State is widespread, with cases reported in all 57 counties and all five boroughs of New York City," Cuomo said in a news release. "Therefore, I have directed my administration, the state Health Department and others to marshal all needed resources to address this public health emergency and remove all barriers to ensure that all New Yorkers - children and adults alike - have access to critically needed flu vaccines."
To date, two children in New York state and 18 nationwide have died from the flu.
As CBS 2's Steve Langford reported, record numbers of people have already fallen ill, and many more have been searching for flu shots.
At one CVS drugstore on Long Island, despite a sign out front saying flu shots are available every day, Mary didn't have to wait too long to find out she wasn't getting a flu shot at the CVS.
"I went right over to the consultation desk, but you know, I asked the girl and she said, 'Only if you're 65 or older," she told 1010 WINS' Gene Michaels.
Flu Shots In Short Supply On Long Island
Down the street, Walgreens had run out of flu shots, even though they had a supply on Friday. Mary is concerned because everyone at work has the flu.
There are also reports that Rite Aid has shortages of the vaccine. The Medford store could not guarantee that there would be any left on Sunday, while Williston Park told customers they should come on Saturday because the supply was low.
The Commack store was out of the vaccine, and West Babylon and Huntington Station have only the high dose for seniors. But Mineola had plenty Saturday.
In fact, WCBS 880's Sophia Hall reported before the sun even came up, Kevin was at the 24-hour CVS drugstore in Mineola, getting a flu shot.
"My wife is pregnant. She's due in a month," Kevin said. "They say it takes two to three weeks to build up immunities or whatever –makes her sleep better at night. Happy wife, happy life."
Hospitals, Care Centers Expecting Big Weekend Crowds Due To Flu Emergency
Right behind him, Virginia said flu epidemic or not, she always gets a flu shot every year.
"And I have had it for like 25, 30 years," she said.
But there were a few people who said they will not be rolling up their sleeves.
"Unless they come out with shot for every single strain that's out there, there's no point," said Jane, who said she keeps healthy by eating lots of vegetables and constantly washing her hands.
As of Friday, New York state alone was reporting more than 19,000 confirmed cases so far this year -- five times more than all of 2012.
WEB EXTRA: Find A Flu Shot
Officials said 5 percent of emergency room visits are flu-related.
"We're hitting records every day," said Dr. Jon Weinstein, who administered five times the number of flu shots Friday compared to a typical day at his office on the Upper West Side. "There's beginning to be a lot of fear in the population"
At Montefiore Medical Center in the Norwood section of the Bronx, it was more of the same.
"This week we hit 371 patients in a 24-hour period. In the days following they hit 394, much of it flu-like illness," Dr. Andrew Chertoff said.
Concern about the flu also has been mounting among the public.
"We're pretty concerned, because the flu is getting everywhere, and then a lot of kids at school are getting sick as well," said Agnes Doong of Harlem.
Meanwhile, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has called for immediate passage of paid sick leave legislation in response to the flu outbreak. He said more than 1 million New Yorkers do not have paid sick leave.
But the fears are not just in the Tri-State Area. Nationwide, 47 states have reported the flu has reached vast areas.
But just how do you tell if you've got the flu or a cold?
"If you're a relatively healthy person, that is probably just a cold," said Dr. Sorana Segal-Maurer, an infectious disease expert at New York Hospital Queens.
WebMD explains that colds usually begin with a sore throat or nasal discomfort, while the flu hits patients like a proverbial ton of bricks with a sore throat, a fever, headaches, and muscle aches. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.
If you've got a fever of 102 or more, and a dry cough that will not go away, you can bet it's the flu, Segal-Maurer said.
And for many this weekend, just as the Doong family, getting that flu shot is the only thing that is putting them at ease.
"It means a lot," said Agnes Doong.
It is expected the flu will kill 24,000 adults by season's end.
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