- Associated Press - Thursday, January 10, 2013

NEW YORK (AP) - From the Rocky Mountains to New England, hospitals are swamped with people with flu symptoms. Some medical centers have limited visitors, and one Pennsylvania hospital set up a tent outside its ER to handle the feverish patients.

Flu season in the U.S. has hit early and, in some places, hard. But whether this will be considered a bad season by the time it has run its course in the spring remains to be seen.

“Those of us with gray hair have seen worse,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a flu expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

The evidence so far is pointing to a moderate season, Schaffner and others believe. It just looks bad compared with last year _ an unusually mild one.

Flu usually doesn’t blanket the country until late January or February, but it is already widespread in more than 40 states.

What’s probably complicating the situation: The main influenza virus this year tends to make people sicker. And there are other bugs out there causing flu-like illnesses. So what people are calling the flu may, in fact, be something else.

“There may be more of an overlap than we normally see,” said Dr. Joseph Bresee, who tracks the flu for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The flu’s early arrival in the U.S. coincided with spikes in a variety of other viruses, including a childhood malady that mimics flu and a new norovirus that causes what some people call “stomach flu.”

Most people don’t undergo lab tests to confirm flu, and the symptoms are so similar that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish flu from other viruses, or even a cold. Over the holidays, 250 people were sickened at a Mormon missionary training center in Utah, but the culprit turned out to be a norovirus, not the flu.

Flu is a major contributor, though, to what’s going on.

“I’d say 75 percent,” said Dr. Dan Surdam, head of the emergency department at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, Wyoming’s largest hospital. The 17-bed ER saw its busiest day ever last week, with 166 visitors.

The early onslaught has resulted in a spike in hospitalizations, prompting hospitals to take steps to deal with the influx and protect other patients from getting sick, including restricting visits from children, requiring family members to wear masks, and banning anyone with flu symptoms from maternity wards.

One hospital in Allentown, Pa., this week set up a tent for a steady stream of patients with flu symptoms.

But so far, “what we’re seeing is a typical flu season,” said Terry Burger, director of infection control and prevention for the hospital, Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest.

On Wednesday, Boston declared a public health emergency, and all the flu activity has caused some to question whether this year’s flu shot is working.

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