Damien Dancy puts masks on his children Damaya, 3, left, and Damien, 7, on Wednesday at a hospital in Virginia Beach, Va.
Damien Dancy puts masks on his children Damaya, 3, left, and Damien, 7, on Wednesday at a hospital in Virginia Beach, Va. (Stephen M. Katz/The Virginian-Pilot)

It seems the only thing that spread faster than the flu this week was news the virus is especially potent this winter.

While no one around here is declaring an emergency - as the mayor of Boston did Wednesday - local pharmacists and health officials report that Yorkers seem to be reconsidering the value of a flu shot.

Staff at the York City Health Bureau have nearly filled next week's schedule with vaccination appointments, said Debbie Stoops, the city's immunization nurse coordinator.

"It just seems like everybody is now hearing all the news about all the flu that's out there and they're kind of panicking," she said. "So we have been getting tons of calls."

State health officials report a large outbreak of the seasonal virus has claimed 22 lives so far in Pennsylvania. One person has died of flu-related illness at York Hospital, according to spokesman Barry Sparks.

Health officials predict the number of illnesses will continue to rise because flu season typically doesn't peak until late January or early February.

Widespread: Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has designated influenza as "widespread" throughout the commonwealth, with more than 11,000 laboratory-confirmed cases since flu season began in mid-December. The past week saw a dramatic intensification, with nearly 4,300 new cases.

Nationally, the flu is already considered widespread in more than 40 states, with about 30 of them reporting some major hot spots.

All of this is translating into a second wind of patients flocking to medical offices for flu shots.

Of the 2,500 vaccinations York City ordered for flu season, about 400 shots are left, Stoops said.

"It was an average year for what we ordered. But we are using it up pretty quickly," she said.

Getting shots: Flu shots are free to York City residents, who should call (717) 815-0910 to make an appointment. Stoops suggested York County residents who live outside the city contact state health officials at (717) 771-4505 for information on flu shots.

Vaccines are also available at pharmacies, where supplies seemed to be in short supply Thursday.

"As you might guess, given the recent headlines and the media exposure that's been given and also the highly publicized Boston health crisis, there has been quite a few customers who have come in to get flu shots at our stores," said Chris Brand, spokesman for Giant Food stores.

Giant sells flu shots in its pharmacies for a maximum of $30 without insurance, and the customer walks away with a coupon book, Brand said. Folks do not need to make an appointment.

On Thursday afternoon, two of the company's York stores had sold out of flu shots, and two others were nearly out of the vaccine. The Giant at 275 Pauline Drive still had a decent supply, Brand said.

In Hanover, the Giant at 801 Baltimore St. still has a solid supply, though it was going fast. At 455 Eisenhower Drive, flu shots were nearly gone Thursday, Brand said.

"It's hard to say whether we'll be able to keep up," he said. "It's our hope that we'll be back in all of our stores soon."

Supply used: The Rite-Aid at 115 Leader Heights Road had completely exhausted its flu-shot supply by Thursday afternoon, said Gina Jennings, a pharmacy technician there.

Customer demand has increased significantly in recent days, Jennings said.

"It was pretty busy for a little while in December and then it slowed down. It's really kicked up again," she said. "Their doctors are telling them to get it, or their friends are sick, or they're hearing it on the news."

A woman who answered the phone in the pharmacy at Walgreens, 2101 S. Queen St., said Thursday the store's supply of flu vaccines was running low. The woman, who declined to identify herself, said Walgreens will probably be out of its supply within days.

Yorkers might find more success contacting their family doctor or checking with area walk-in clinics.

Medical offices: At Wellspan's 20 area primary-care offices, all had a supply of the flu vaccine Thursday afternoon, Sparks said.

"From what I understand, there's a good supply of the vaccine," he said.

Patient First offices are also keeping up with the increased demand, which doubled this week compared to last week, according to Dr. Melissa Denham, medical director at the 2690 E. Market St. clinic.

"Because of last year's mild flu season, many people waited this year to get vaccinated," Denham wrote in an email. "Now that everyone is hearing about the flu going around, they are trying to protect themselves."

- The Associated Press contributed to this report. Erin James may also be reached at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.

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Facts about the flu and flu shot

Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

Most people with flu have a mild illness and can help themselves and protect others by staying home and resting. But people with severe symptoms should see a doctor. They may be given antiviral drugs or other medications to ease symptoms.

Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older. Of the 20 children killed by the flu this season, only two were fully vaccinated.

All the flu activity has led some to question whether this year's flu shot is working. While health officials are still analyzing the vaccine, early indications are that it's about 60 percent effective, which is in line with what's been seen in other years.

The vaccine is reformulated each year, based on experts' best guess of which strains of the virus will predominate. The government estimates that between a third and half of Americans have gotten the vaccine.

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How to tell a cold from the flu

The common cold and flu are caused by different viruses but can have some similar symptoms, making them tough to tell apart. In general, the flu is worse and symptoms are more intense.

* Colds: Usual symptoms include stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and sneezing. Coughs are hacking and productive. It's unusual to have fever, chills, headaches and body aches, and if they do occur, they are mild.

* Flu: Fever is usually present, along with chills, headache and moderate-to-severe body aches and tiredness. Symptoms can come on rapidly, within three to six hours. Coughs are dry and unproductive, and sore throats are less common.

* Prevention: To avoid colds and flu, wash your hands with warm water and soap after you've been out in public or around sick people. Don't share cups or utensils. And get a flu vaccination - officials say it's not too late, even in places where flu is raging.

* Treatment: People with colds or mild cases of the flu should get plenty of rest and fluids. Those with severe symptoms, such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, should see a doctor and may be prescribed antiviral drugs or other medications. Children should not be given aspirin without a doctor's approval.

Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Roche, maker of Tamiflu.