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The number of flu cases has soared recently in Maryland, but state health officials said it’s still too early to say whether the state has seen the worst of the outbreak.

State officials do know that, so far, this flu season is the worst since 2009, according to figures from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which collects the data.

Nationally, the flu is listed as widespread in 42 states, including Maryland.

The last two flu seasons were relatively mild, but this time around has seen a sharp rise in hospitalizations, said Dr. David Blythe, medical epidemiologist with the state health department.

For the week ending Dec. 29, the most recent data available, flu and influenza-like illnesses were listed as high and widespread across the state. So far this season, 143 people have been hospitalized with the flu, with nearly half of them over age 65. Roughly 90 percent of the flu cases were of the Type A (H3N2) strain, according to the state report.

Nearly 12 percent of all doctor visits during the week of Dec. 29 were for the flu or flu-like symptoms, compared with a state baseline of about 2 percent, according to the state report.

Hospitals across the state reported 2,317 people arrived at their emergency rooms the week of Dec. 29 with flu-like symptoms, accounting for 4.6 percent of all ER visits in the state, according to the report.

Maryland Hospital Association spokesman Jim Reiter said hospitals are dealing with the caseload.

“It’s an annual thing where they’re prepared for the worst,” Reiter said. “Sometimes it’s not a heavy season and they’re prepared and don’t need it, and other times it’s a heavy season like this and they’re prepared for it.”

The flu cases began to rise in mid-December, just as people were gathering for the holidays.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we haven’t hit the peak yet,” Reiter said.

Those who have not been vaccinated should still consider doing so, because the flu season could continue for some time, Blythe said.

“We don’t know if we’re at the peak until after we’re at the peak,” he said.

The elderly, people with chronic health problems and pregnant women are usually most at risk from the flu and should be checked out by their health care providers if they have symptoms, Blythe said.

The vaccination for this flu season covers the most common strains going around this year, and even though people still can get sick if vaccinated, the severity is likely to be reduced, he said.

cford@gazette.net