Illinois is among the 24 states across the nation hardest hit by the flu, but vaccine is still available in most locations, health officials said Friday as they urged people to get their shots.
Statewide, numbers of hospitalizations and deaths continued to surpass previous years and continued to climb. Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said Friday that 368 people have been admitted to hospital intensive care units with the flu this season and 27 have died.
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Most of the Illinois hospitalizations and deaths were among people in their 50s and older. No children have died. Nationally, 20 children have died from the flu.
Illinois hospitals were asked to enforce restrictions on visitors. The state health department advised hospitals to temporarily bar visitors younger than 18 and to limit visitors to two per patient at any one time.
"There is no doubt we are experiencing a severe flu season. However, we have seen severe flu seasons before and we will continue to work to reduce the number of people who become ill," said the state's top public health doctor, LaMar Hasbrouck.
In Chicago, public health officials got creative in reaching out. The city's health department held a chat on Twitter to answer questions, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel tweeted a question in the form of a photo. He held a sign reading: "Any advice for people who shake a ton of hands? #FluChicago."
To answer, Dr. Julie Morita of the health department replied via Twitter: "My advice is to wash your hands frequently and have hand sanitizer readily available!"
Chicago reported a slight decrease in flu activity this week, but health officials said the dip may be only temporary. Last week there were 31 patients in intensive care with the flu, a decrease from 35 the previous week.
"Our goal is to encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated," said Chicago Department of Public Health spokesman Brian Richardson. "We have free clinics across the city and our Care-Van mobile unit is at different locations every day providing free vaccines to Chicagoans." Richardson said there's no shortage of vaccine.
Staying home when you're sick can keep the flu from spreading, health officials said. That's meant a little more juggling than normal for The Larko Group, a small agency in Chicago that specializes in providing temporary executive administrative assistants to local companies.
When a client's receptionist called in sick on Friday with the flu, the first person Larko called as a temporary replacement couldn't take the assignment because she'd been called by another agency 20 minutes before -- to fill in for somebody who was sick, said Heidi Steinkraus, the company's temporary division coordinator. The person who finally took the assignment said "it was the third call she'd gotten this week to fill in for a receptionist who called in sick," Steinkraus said.
Larko has filled about 10 short-term assignments in the last couple weeks because of illnesses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed Illinois among the 24 states hardest hit by the flu in its weekly update Friday. State health officials expect the numbers to rise as more doctors and hospitals report cases from previous weeks.
Earlier in the week, Chicago-area hospitals turned away ambulances as they dealt with a surge of patients with flu-like symptoms such as cough, fever, muscle aches and runny nose. Hospitals weren't as overwhelmed Friday.
The state health department encourages people to check with their doctors before heading to an emergency room. In general, only those with severe respiratory illness who have trouble breathing need to visit the ER.