Photographer: Eugenio Marongiu/Getty Images

Delayed Flu Outbreak Hits New York Hard

  • Hospitals may see more patients as virus sweeps the nation
  • Doctor, clinic visits may contribute to insurer costs

Late and unwelcome as ever, the flu has arrived.

The annual influenza season, which typically peaks between December and February, has picked up strength across the U.S. and is widespread now in 37 states, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The virus is highly active in the south and west -- normally seen early in the season -- and it also hitting hard in New York and New Jersey.

While the number of Americans going to the doctor for flu-like symptoms has risen steadily for the past two months, accounting for 3.5 percent of visits for the week ended March 5, the rate remains well below seasonal peaks in recent years. It is still gaining, however. At a time when the flu is typically starting to dissipate, it is now accounting for more visits at this time of the year than during the last four seasons, according to CDC data.

The relative absence of flu so far this season had a negative financial impact on hospital companies, including Community Health Systems Inc., the nation’s second-largest for-profit chain. Insurers, meanwhile, reaped the benefit of paying for fewer doctors visits and hospitals stays.

About 7 percent of deaths reported to the CDC stemmed from pneumonia and influenza for the week ended March 5, below the nation’s epidemic threshold of 7.7 percent, CDC said. The flu contributed to the deaths of two children, bringing the number of pediatric deaths tied to the flu to 20 for the season. That compares with 148 for all of last year and 111 in the 2013-2014 season.

The flu vaccine was well matched to the virus circulating this year, proving nearly 60 percent effective against all circulating viruses, according to a February CDC report. The strain is also showing little to no signs of resistance to medicines like Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu.

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