Flu hits epidemic level; vaccines still recommended

John Egan

The flu has reached an epidemic level in the U.S., with 47 states hit by flu outbreaks, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Jan. 11. Last week, 7.3 percent of deaths were caused by pneumonia and the flu, the CDC says.

Health experts warn the 2012-13 flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in a decade; officials are seeing a spike in ER visits, doctor's visits and hospital stays related to the flu. Experts say it's not too late to get vaccinated, as the flu season is expected to last until this spring.

Are flu vaccines covered by insurance?

Most health insurance plans cover flu vaccines (shots and nasal sprays), which cost roughly $30 to $40 each. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that under the federal health care reform law, many insurers must cover certain preventive services, like the flu vaccine, at no cost to you. Various free vaccination programs are available for people who don't have insurance or whose insurance doesn't cover flu vaccines.

The CDC recommends that nearly everyone get a flu vaccine, especially people who are 65 and older. More than 60 percent of Americans don't get vaccinated against the flu, according to drugstore chain Walgreens.

"While influenza vaccination offers the best protection we have against influenza, it's still possible that some people may become ill despite being vaccinated," Dr. Joe Bresee, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch in the CDC's flu division, says in a news release. "Health care providers and the public should remember that influenza antiviral medications are a second line of defense against influenza."

According to health insurance company Wellpoint, this season's flu vaccines are designed to fight three viruses: the H1N1 virus, the H3N2 virus and an influenza B virus. While the H1N1 virus used to make the 2012-13 flu vaccine is the same virus that was included in the 2011-12 vaccine, Wellpoint says, the influenza H3N2 and B vaccine viruses differ from those in the 2011-12 vaccine for the Northern Hemisphere.

Health officials say this year's flu vaccines are proving to be 62 percent effective.

Health care providers overwhelmed by flu

Montefiore Medical Center in New York City says that as many as 40 percent of people seeking ER treatment are testing positive for the flu. In the state of New York, more than 15,000 cases of the flu have been reported this season, with hospitalizations up 169 percent over the previous flu season.

"Our clinics and emergency departments are overwhelmingly busy with both adult and pediatric flu cases," Dr. Brian Currie, vice president and medical director for research at Montefiore, says in a news release. "Only those with severe symptoms or people living with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease or other illnesses that weaken the immune system should visit the emergency department if they have the flu."

Millions treated for flu each year

Health experts caution people who are sick with flu-like symptoms to stay at home. An estimated 31 million Americans are treated each year for the flu, according to Walgreens.

"Even with flu-like symptoms, many people still try to go to work, school or other activities," Dr. Andrew Sama, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, says in a news release. "This is only making a bad situation worse, spreading the virus and getting more people sick. Not to mention, you are putting yourself at greater risk of worsening your current health situation such as developing pneumonia."