Flu cases are increasing statewide and doctors are seeing that trend in Berks County, where last week confirmed cases jumped to 518 for the season, up 65% from the previous week, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

As of the week ending Jan. 4, there were 25,362 laboratory-confirmed flu cases across Pennsylvania, officials said. That was up 68% from the week before, which had seen an increase of 56% from the previous week.

A total of 477 flu-associated hospitalizations and 13 flu-associated deaths have been reported statewide season-to-date. 

The state did not disclose where those deaths occurred, but 10 of those who died were age 65 and older, two were between 50 and 64 and one was between 19 and 49.

Neither Penn State Health St. Joseph nor Reading Hospital reported any flu-related deaths, but both have seen significant increases in flu patients since late December, officials said.

"The flu is going strong right now," said Mari Driscoll, infection control coordinator for St. Joseph.

The hospital has about 10 patients admitted with the flu, most of whom had other conditions such as diabetes or preexisting lung issues that make them more vulnerable to the flu's side effects, she said.

About 15 more flu patients had already been admitted and discharged from St. Joseph, and close to 300 have been diagnosed and sent home, where they were told to rest, drink lots of fluids, take Tylenol for fevers and possibly Tamiflu if the flu was detected early enough, she said.

Most years the A strain of the flu hits locally first and brings more severe symptoms than the B strain, which arrives late in the season, she said. But this year the B strain has already been just as prevalent as the A type, with similar symptoms, showing how the flu evolves each year and how hard it is to predict, she said.

St. Joseph has had an equal number of patients admitted with respiratory syncytial virus, which can be as bad or worse than the flu, sometimes causing serious respiratory problems and typically affecting young children and older adults, Driscoll said.

Reading Hospital also has seen an unusually higher number of B-type flu cases in recent weeks with symptoms similar to A cases, said Dr. Debra Powell, chief of the section of infectious disease. And the hospital also has had a lot of RSV cases, she said.

Reading Hospital and other Tower Health sites in Berks are no longer testing those with flu-like symptoms, instead assuming they have the flu and treating them appropriately, Powell said.

The flu season usually peaks locally about the 10th or 12th week of the year, but this year it will likely hit earlier, maybe by early February, Driscoll said.

Both hospitals urged those who haven't received flu vaccinations to get them now. The vaccinations are available at most doctor's offices and drug stores and are the best way to prevent flu and its potentially serious complications, officials said.

It's too early to say how effective the flu vaccine is nationwide this season, but Driscoll said it seems to cover the strains most commonly being seen by doctors.

She also encouraged frequent hand-washing as a good way to help prevent the spread of viruses.

As of Dec. 28, there were at least 6.4 million flu illnesses nationwide, 55,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths, including 27 pediatric deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The flu was considered widespread in all states except for Kansas, Maine, North Dakota, Vermont, where it was regional, and Hawaii and the District of Columbia, where it was local, CDC reported.

It is not an epidemic because the percentage of deaths among flu patients attributed to pneumonia and flu is currently 5.5%, below the epidemic threshold, according to CDC.

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