Death toll in Wash. state flu epidemic keeps climbing

SEATTLE - The number of deaths from Washington state's ongoing flu epidemic continues to climb as the illness spreads to all counties.

Five counties have reported flu-related deaths, bringing the total statewide to at least 24 - up from 13 reported deaths on Thursday.

State Department of Health spokesman Paul Throne said the actual death toll is likely higher because there is a lag in reporting from individual health care facilities to state health officials.

"We've seen a rapid increase over the past couple of weeks, and we are concerned about the spread of the flu in Washington right now," Throne said. "There's always a delay in reporting, so it's quite possible there could be more deaths."

The sheer number of influenza cases is forcing hospitals to take extreme measures to stop the spread, including increasing the capacity of their emergency room operations.

One of those hospitals is Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, which has seen scores of flu cases over the past few weeks. The facility has set up a satellite emergency room next to their main ER to handle more patients.

The hospital also has had to admit several people who have underlying health issues in addition to the flu. Providence is still taking patients, but they are encouraging those who have flu symptoms - but are otherwise healthy - to use walk-in clinics or urgent care.

Many long-term care facilities that specialize in care for seniors also are seeing a rapid spread of the disease through their patients.

The flu strain making the rounds this season is known as H3N2, which Throne calls a "particularly severe strain."

Experts say it is especially dangerous for the very young, the very old and people who are pregnant or have a weak immune system.

Symptoms include chills, fever and body aches. "People say it feels like they got hit by a train," says Throne.

Doctors say the current flu vaccine is well matched to this particular strain of the virus and reduces the risk of getting the flu by 60 percent.

Health officials also are urging patients to get the flu shot, if they haven't done so already. People still have plenty of time - the flu season could last up to 12 more weeks.

Meantime, health officials are doing all they can to help medical facilities cope with the high number of flu cases.

"We're watching the situation closely," says Throne.

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