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Originally published Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 5:20 PM

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Harsh season of flu may be nearing peak

Flu cases increased sharply last week in Western Washington and may be peaking about a month earlier than usual. The illness is widespread, and so far the season seems more severe than the previous two.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Flu seems be peaking earlier than usual in Western Washington, with infections in January reaching levels usually not seen until February or March. And while cases nationwide seem to be leveling off, there’s no sign yet of a slowdown here, said James Apa, spokesman for Public Health — Seattle & King County.

“Overall, this is an earlier flu season than we’ve typically seen,” Apa said Saturday.

The season also seems to be more severe than the last two, both of which were considered mild, said Donn Moyer, of the Washington state Department of Health.

“We do know there’s a lot of disease, there’s a lot of people who are sick.”

The strain of flu that dominates this year, called influenza A, often causes a nastier illness than other varieties of the bug, Moyer said. “It’s very harsh on people.”

Statewide, 17 deaths have been confirmed as flu-related so far. That compares with 18 during the entire previous season. “And we’re probably at about the midpoint now,” Moyer said.

King County’s death total stood at nine on Jan. 19. Spokane County recorded its first flu death of the season last week. The victim was identified as a woman in her 80s. An Everett woman in her 70s died Jan. 14.

Only two of Washington’s flu deaths so far were among people under the age of 70 — one child and one woman in her 40s.

Across the country, this year’s flu seems to be taking a particularly heavy toll on the elderly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The actual toll is undoubtedly much higher than the official statistics suggest, Moyer said. Most people who are infected with the flu are never tested for the virus.

“Laboratory-confirmed deaths are just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

The percentage of emergency-room visits for flulike illness in Western Washington jumped sharply last week, with nearly 500 patients complaining of fever, cough and other symptoms typical of the flu.

Health officials continue to monitor long-term-care facilities. Several outbreaks at facilities earlier in the season spurred the state Department of Health to issue an advisory calling on staff to promptly treat any residents with flu-like symptoms and to take extra precautions to help stem the spread of disease among vulnerable groups.

It’s hard to know what the rest of the flu season will bring, Apa said. A spike in cases in January is no guarantee that infections will drop off soon, or that another peak won’t follow in the coming months.

“Flu is notoriously unpredictable,” he said.

It’s not too late to get vaccinated, though some pharmacies have already exhausted their supplies.

“A lot of the vaccine is already in people’s arms,” Apa said.

“Our understanding is that there’s still some vaccine left in King County, but you might have to work a little bit harder to find it.”

Turnout has been good at free vaccination clinics for low-income people, sponsored by Public Health — Seattle & King County, Apa said. Three more clinics are on the schedule:

• Tuesday, 3-7 p.m., North Public Health Center, 10501 Meridian Ave. N., Seattle.

• Wednesday, 3-7 p.m., Eastgate Public Health Center, 14350 S.E. Eastgate Way, Bellevue.

• Thursday, 3-7 p.m., Columbia Public Health Center, 4400 37th Ave. S., Seattle.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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