CDC estimates 9.7 million cases of the flu this season

ATLANTA -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released its latest estimates of the flu season's impact, and while the number of cases is high, officials say hospitalizations and deaths that are indicators of severity are not high.

Still, the CDC estimates that 9.7 million people have gotten the flu this season, including an estimated 4,800 deaths and 87,000 hospitalizations.

Of those deaths, 32 were children -- the only actual flu deaths that are tracked. During recent past flu seasons, deaths among children have ranged from 37 to 187 fatalities.

Visits to health care providers for the flu decreased for the week ending January 4, but the CDC says it's unclear whether that means the flu season has peaked or whether the holidays stopped people from seeking medical attention.

Officials said the unusual early dominance of the B strain appears to have had the biggest impact on children, a group that experts warn are particularly vulnerable to the flu and its complications.

"The flu season began early this year and took off aggressively," said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "It began prominently in the southeastern states, but quickly spread. So far, there is no sign that the momentum of the annual epidemic is slowing."

In general, influenza B is more common in children, while influenza A, also known as H1N1, is more commonly seen in older adults, according to Dr. Jessica Grayson, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The highest flu activity was clustered in 33 states, including much of the southern and western parts of the country, as well as New York City and Washington, D.C.

It remains too early to say how severe this flu season will be or how long it will last.

Typical symptoms of the flu include fever, sore throat, aches, chills and sweats and fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic.

While the flu might seem like a relatively minor disease because it's so common, complications from the flu, which can include pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma flare-ups and heart problems, can be deadly.

People with weakened immune systems, adults older than age 65 and babies are all at a higher risk of contracting the flu, as well as at higher risk for developing complications from the disease.

If you experience flu symptoms, Dr. Grayson recommends staying home from work and other public places to avoid transmitting the disease to others. Wash your hands often and avoid others who are ill.

Experts say that getting vaccinated against the flu is the best way to protect against the disease.

"It's not too late to get vaccinated," Dr. Grayson stressed. "We still have a lot of flu season left."

Guidelines for children are slightly different than they are for adults, according to the CDC. The agency is now recommending that some children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years old get two doses of the vaccine, spaced at least four weeks apart. The child's doctor or health care provider should determine whether he or she needs a second dose for the best possible protection.

Despite those recommendations, however, many Americans believe that the flu vaccine doesn't work or has side effects.

In part because of these misconceptions, only half of Americans reported that they planned to get the flu vaccine this year, according to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases this summer.

(ABC News contributed to this report)
Copyright © 2020 KFSN-TV. All Rights Reserved.