March 29, 2010 -- H1N1 swine flu hospitalizations in Georgia have returned to October levels, triggering a nationwide CDC warning that too many at-risk people have not been vaccinated.
The Georgia findings today spurred the CDC to hold its first national news teleconference in weeks. During the height of the pandemic, the CDC scheduled two or three such news conferences weekly.
"Georgia had more than 40 hospitalizations from lab-confirmed H1N1 influenza this past week, and for the third week in a row had more of these than anywhere in the country," Anne Schuchat, MD, director of the CDC's respiratory disease center, said at the news conference.
Two other Deep South states bordering Georgia -- Alabama and South Carolina -- are still seeing regional outbreaks of H1N1 swine flu. Eight other states, six of them in the South, and Puerto Rico are still experiencing localized outbreaks. Most of the rest of the country is seeing only sporadic cases as of the March 20 surveillance report.
As far as scientists can tell, there's been no change in the virus. That means that all of these severely ill patients could have avoided the flu if they'd gotten the H1N1 swine flu vaccine, which has been widely available -- and free -- for months.
"The clinical pattern of illness seems the same," Schuchat said. "What we see now are cases severe enough to require hospitalization in people for whom there are indications for vaccination, but who unfortunately had not taken advantage of the vaccine yet."
To date, the CDC estimates that about 12,000 Americans have died in the H1N1 swine flu pandemic. On first glance, that's a lot fewer than the 36,000 people who die during an average flu season.
But this hasn't been an average flu season. Most years, more than 90% of people who died of flu were elderly. This year, 90% of deaths have been in people under age 65.
"We estimate the death rate in young people is five times higher than is typical for seasonal influenza," Schuchat said.
Do the Georgia hospitalizations represent the much-talked-about "third wave" of the pandemic? Schuchat doesn't think so, although she stops short of ruling it out.
"I can't say whether we'll see another wave," Schuchat said. "But I am worried about another possibility: that additional cases will happen day in and day out among people who don't think they need the vaccine any more."
Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, addressed those people during the teleconference.
"We are at a critical moment in our national response to this virus, and we need to get people vaccinated, especially those at high risk," Benjamin said.