This year's flu season is officially on the wane.
It peaked in January, and 12 states - including Pennsylvania and New Jersey - reported low levels of influenza-like illness in the week ending Feb. 14, according to federal health officials.
But with at least a couple of more months to go, the 2014-15 flu season has already been longer and harsher than usual, especially for older folks. Nationally, flu-related hospitalizations among people 65 and over hit the highest level since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracking it nine years ago. (To be precise, 242 seniors per 100,000 were hospitalized this month; the highest previous rate was 183 per 100,000.)
The five counties of Southeastern Pennsylvania had a total of 7,579 confirmed cases from the start of the season, Sept. 28 through Feb. 14, according to the state Health Department.
The University of Pennsylvania's three city hospitals have been walloped by the wave of people suffering fevers, chills, head and body aches, coughs, and sore throats.
"We were at or above capacity in January and early February at all three hospitals," said Neil Fishman, an infectious-diseases specialist with the Penn health system.
In part, the severity of the season reflects the fact that this year's flu vaccine was a relatively poor match with a new virus strain that began circulating after the vaccine went into production.
At the Kohlerman Pharmacy in Malvern, pharmacist and owner Charles Kohlerman could barely keep up with demand for the antiviral drug Tamiflu in January, especially when influenza struck at two nearby nursing homes.
"We were going through Tamiflu like crazy," he said.
But lots of people in the U.S. - 54 percent last year - don't bother to get the vaccine, a shot or nasal spray recommended for everyone over six months old that is typically covered by insurance.
"It is worth getting," Kohlerman said. "It's not going to hurt you, and it can help you."
Fishman echoed that sentiment.
"Anecdotally, the vast majority of people who were in the [Penn] hospitals were not vaccinated," he said. "Although the vaccine didn't prevent as much disease as we would have liked, we do have evidence that it prevented some severe disease."
The CDC, which doesn't require reporting of flu deaths except in children, uses statistical models and death certificate data to estimate deaths in which flu was a contributing factor. The seasonal estimates, which are not done every year, have ranged from 3,000 to about 49,000 people.
The people most vulnerable to the flu are the young, because they have not developed natural immunity, and the old, because their immune systems tend to be weaker.
So far this season, 86 children have died of the flu, the CDC says. Since pediatric deaths became reportable in 2004, the total has ranged from 35 to 171 per season.
The proportion of all deaths for all ages attributed to flu and pneumonia, based on CDC surveillance in 122 cities, was 8.4 percent during the week ending Feb. 14, down from the peak of 9.3 percent in January. That is comparable to past severe seasons, including 2003-04, when flu-related deaths reached 10.4 percent of all deaths, the CDC said.