CHICAGO — The flu has hit the Windy City earlier than any time in the previous five years and it's showing no sign of letting up, as hospitalizations increase and reported cases of the highly contagious viral infection continue to climb.
"So far, it's just going up," Julie Morita, medical director for the Chicago Department of Public Health's immunization program, said of the number of cases in the city. "Typically the flu increases in January or later, but this is the earliest we've seen in at least the past five years."
From Sept. 30-Dec. 22 last year, 48 patients were hospitalized in intensive care units citywide, according to city records. There have been two deaths so far this flu season.
During the same time frame last year, only one person went to an ICU with the flu, and that didn't happen until mid-December.
Outpatient visits are up, too.
"Typically less than 3 percent of doctor and outpatient clinic visits are for the flu, and now we're at 5 percent," Morita said. "The important message is that we're seeing it early, and people are getting sick."
While last year there was a "a mixture of strains" of the flu, this year it's type A, or H3N2, a more virulent strain in general, that's been affecting patients, Morita said.
The University of Chicago Medical Center has seen the spike.
Dr. Allison Bartlett, associate medical director for the U. of C.'s Infection Control Department, said that between October and last week, 50 patients had been hospitalized for the flu — compared with just one patient hospitalized during the same period last year.
"We're seeing a much earlier onset [of the flu on] the pediatric side as well as the adult side," she said. Even some children have ended up in intensive care because of the flu, Bartlett said.
"Oftentimes we think flu just affects older people, but we're seeing healthy people, too. It's across the board," Bartlett said.
In addition to hospitalizations, outpatient instances of the flu are the highest at the Hyde Park-based medical center than any time in the last three years, with an average of 40 to 50 patients per week testing positive for the flu, Bartlett said.
Evidence of the city's problem was not hard to find this week.
By 9 a.m. Tuesday, five patients were sitting in the waiting room of a Walgreens Take Care clinic at 151 N. State St.
Suffering from a fever and cough, and wearing his hoodie despite the high room temperature, Luke Rzeszutko said he'd been "dodging the flu since Christmas."
"Last night we went to a show at the Park West; a friend of ours was coughing. I probably got it from her," said Rzeszutko, 25, an engineer from Little Italy.
Amanda Ray, a Take Care clinic nurse, said "This has been the worst flu season yet" in her two years at the clinic. "Lot of cases, all ages, across the board," she said.
The flu season has come early nationally, too. In any given year, anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of the United States population will contract the flu. About 36,000 of those who have the flu will die from the virus or complications from it, according to University of Chicago research.
Children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, and pregnant women are at higher risk of developing flu-related complications.
Morita said it's still definitely worth getting a flu shot: "The CDC looks at vaccination as the best form of protection. It's not too late. You can still get the vaccine."