NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- New York City health officials on Tuesday were pleading for all New Yorkers to get the flu shot after two children died from the virus.
As CBS2's Lisa Rozner reported, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has also asked for people to stay home if they get sick.
City officials announced Monday that two New York City children have died this season from the flu – including Amely Baez, 8, of the LeFrak City complex in Corona, Queens.
The decline was sudden for the young girl. On Sunday she had trouble breathing and by Monday morning she was gone.
Health officials said she was the second child this year in the city to die from a flu-related illness. The second death was described only as a pediatric patient and officials gave no other details.
Health officials have not said whether Amely or the other child had received flu shots. But Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said getting that shot could save a life.
"Over the past several months, we've seen a surge in flu activity in our city, in our state and across the nation," said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett, adding that emergency room visits related to the flu are "the highest that we've seen in the last four years."
"It's very important to remind New Yorkers that the flu is not the sniffles and a cough. That there are many people who die of influenza-related illnesses and that we lose more people every year to influenza and pneumonia-related illnesses," Bassett continued.
Emergency room visits for the flu are up 30 percent from last year, and so are the number of vaccinations being given out, Bassett said at a news conference Tuesday.
The flu season runs all the way through May. To find a vaccine, you can call 311, click here or text "flu" to 877877.
"Don't spread the flu, stay home and get better," said Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Lorelei Salas. "I'd also like to remind businesses that they legally have to provide sick leave. Workers whose employers don't provide sick leave, or employers with questions about how to comply should contact us by calling 311 or visit nyc.gov/PaidSickLeave."
Other city officials on also reminded employers about paid sick leave legislation Tuesday.
"This has to be a team effort in this city, or all of us are going to pay the price," said City Councilman Mark Levine (D-7th).
Bassett said it is not too late to get a flu shot. She said getting one reduces New Yorkers' chance of contracting a virus by a third.
"It does ameliorate the symptoms of the flu and reduces serious complications of the flu, and in pediatric cases, reduces the chance of death," she said.
At the news conference Tuesday, Bassett would not comment about the two pediatric flu fatalities.
"As I said, I'm not going to speak about individual cases, but I think you've asked an important question about vaccine coverage," Bassett said when asked whether the children had been vaccinated.
Responding to another question, she said: "Not speaking to these individual cases. We see very few children that have fatal flu have been vaccinated. The majority are not vaccinated."
Outside the LeFrak City apartments Tuesday, CBS2 met two people within minutes who had just been diagnosed with the flu.
"I just felt like it wasn't necessary, but at the same time, I regret it," said Ron Camacho of Corona, "because now I think I have the flu."
When asked if she got the shot, Vicki Betancur of Corona said, "No, I don't like it."
Flu shots still available by calling 311, but for some, the increasing flu cases aren't fazing them.
"I never get one," said Bill Morgan of Corona, "because I take a thousand milligram of vitamin C every day."
Overall, there have been nearly 37,000 lab-confirmed flu cases over the past eight weeks in New York state, with more than 9,300 people requiring hospitalization.
Speaking at an unrelated event Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio called this year's flu season "an epidemic that we have not seen in many years."
"It's heartbreaking that parents have lost young children to the flu," he said. "My heart goes out to those families, but I also want say we have to protect our children going forward."
The mayor said parents need to be watching out for flu symptoms.
"When our kids contract the flu, it's very, very dangerous," he said. "I want all parents, and everyone, to be aware. If you think a child is coming down with the flu, it's crucial to get them care right away. Do not wait."
Many parents Tuesday were equally alarmed and saddened by the deaths.
"I have four children," one woman said. "Nothing should happen like that to little children."
Angelina Ramos picked up her 7-year-old daughter from P.S. 139 in Rego Park Tuesday morning, headed for the doctor with flu-like symptoms. The school urging parents to keep sick kids home.
"It's dangerous for the other children," she said.
Even with precautions, this year the flu is proving to be difficult to avoid.
"My daughter, she had the same," said parent Lena Borodina. "This Sunday, she was really sick, both of my kids."
As CBS2's Jessica Layton reported, Valerie Listwon feels like an urgent care center on West 57th Street has become a second home lately with all the flu-related misery plaguing her family.
"It's just an ongoing mess," Listwon said. "We're constantly here."
Her daughter Zara, 6, just tested positive for the flu for the second time this season.
"She's very congested and her throat hurts a lot," Listwon said. "I'm drained."
It turned out Zara was in school with a 102-degree fever. Her mother said before she knew it was influenza, she was torn about sending her to school.
Doctors such as Maurice Wright of NYC Health + Hospitals/Harlem, which has been slammed with flu cases, stress that if there is any doubt, keep the kids at home.
"A child coughing in a classroom can literally infect the entire classroom," Wright said. "Any symptoms whatsoever, keep children home."
The city's Department of Education said before sending your child back to school, he or she should be fever-free for at least 24 hours, without a medication such as Motrin or Tylenol. An extra trip to the doctor for the added "OK" doesn't hurt either.
When asked whether the flu shot should be mandatory, de Blasio said: "I think it's a very legitimate question given what we're seeing. I mean this year has really thrown everyone for a loop."
Whether to demand the shot in schools will ultimately be a decision for the state. For now, it is up to parents to do their best to protect their kids this deadly flu season that has barely hit peak.
The Centers for Disease Control reports so far this year, the nation has seen 53 pediatric deaths. That figure will likely rise, as more cases are reported.
In December, a 4-year-old New Jersey girl died from the flu. Then in January, 10-year-old Connecticut boy Nico Mallozzi died from complications of the flu after attending a hockey tournament in Buffalo.
Doctor visits for flu-like symptoms also hit their highest level nationwide since the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
A local pharmacist in Queens said New Yorkers who fear getting sick from the flu shot itself shouldn't.
"Some people have the perception that they get the flu from the flu shot so they're afraid of getting it," he told 1010 WINS' Glenn Schuck. "As a matter of fact it cuts down the severity of it."
Here are some tips from the Department of Health:
Tips for parents:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- If you or your child is sick with influenza, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them and seek care. There are antiviral drugs that a health care worker can prescribe that can treat influenza, reducing the time that you are ill and preventing some of the more serious complications of this infection.
- If your child is at high risk for influenza complications, you should speak to your medical provider about antiviral medication if they develop influenza-like symptoms.
- If a child has a condition like asthma, call a doctor if they show influenza-like symptoms.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone except to get medical care or for other necessities.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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