NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Flu hospitalizations among the elderly rose sharply last week, prompting federal officials to take unusual steps to make more flu medicines available and to urge wider use of them as soon as symptoms appear.

The U.S. is about halfway through the flu season, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, half of confirmed flu cases are in people 65 and older.

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“The bottom line is that the flu season continues,” Frieden said Friday. “We’re in the middle of the flu season and it’s shaping up to be a worse than average season and a bad season particularly for the elderly.”

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New figures from the CDC show 48 states seeing widespread flu activity, meaning more than 50 percent of its counties are reporting flu. Thirty states and New York City experienced high activity of influenza-like illness.

The only two states not showing widespread activity are Tennessee and Hawaii.

Nine more children or teens have died of the flu, bringing the nation’s total this flu season to 29, health officials reported Friday. That’s close to the 34 pediatric deaths reported during all of the last flu season, although that one was unusually light.

In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu and officials said there is no way to know whether deaths this season will be higher or lower than usual.

So far, half of confirmed flu cases are in people 65 and older. Lab-confirmed flu hospitalizations totaled 19 for every 100,000 in the population, but 82 per 100,000 among those 65 and older, “which is really quite a high rate,” Frieden said.

“We expect to see both the number and the rates of both hospitalizations and deaths rise further in the next week or so as the flu epidemic progresses,” so prompt treatment with antivirals is key to preventing deaths, he said.

Two drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, can cut the severity and risk of death from the flu but must be started within 48 hours of
first symptoms to do much good.

To increase supplies of Tamiflu, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, head of the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency had allowed Genentech to distribute additional doses that have old packaging information.

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This year’s season is earlier than normal and the dominant flu strain is one that tends to make people sicker.

Health officials say it’s not too late to get a flu shot to help protect against the flu. Vaccinations are recommended for anyone 6 months or older.

Last week, the CDC said the flu again surpassed an “epidemic” threshold, based on monitoring of deaths from flu and a frequent complication, pneumonia. The flu epidemic happens every year and officials say this year’s vaccine is a good match for strains that are going around.

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The government doesn’t keep a running tally of adult deaths from the flu, but estimates that it kills about 24,000 people most years.

This year’s bad flu season is prompting renewed calls for New York City employers to provide paid sick days for their workers.

Medical professionals and politicians gathered on the steps City Hall Friday urging City Council to a pass a bill requiring sick time.

“Everyone pays when sick people are forced to go to work. Their co-workers become infected,” said Judy Gonzalez is with the New York State Nurse’s Association

Councilwoman Gale Brewer said Connecticut as well as the cities of San Francisco and Washington D.C. are among places that already require paid sick days.

“Nobody wants to lose their job,” she said. “They want to be good workers in this economy, so people only use it when they are sick.”

The legislation was first proposed back in 2010.

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