At least 66 people in Georgia have died after complications with the flu this season, including at least two children, according to the latest data from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
The update comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says this year's brutal flu season now equals the severity of the swine flu pandemic of 2009.
Scientists measure the spread and severity of the flu by looking at the percentage of doctor's visits that are for flu or flu-like illnesses. Normally for this time of year, the national average is a little more than 2 percent of visits. This year, it has skyrocketed to 7.7 percent of visits.
In Georgia, it's worse. A little less than two percent of visits are normally for flu or flu-related illness. This year, it's nearly 16 percent, or about eight times the average.
Overall flu deaths are difficult to calculate, but the CDC reports that 63 children have died from flu or flu-related illness at this point.
"This is a difficult season and we can’t predict how much longer the intense flu activity will last,” CDC acting director Dr. Anne Schuchat told NBC News. "This season, we are on track to break some records."
Every U.S. state except Hawaii and Oregon are reporting widespread flu activity, with 42 states plus New York City, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico reporting high levels of illness, the CDC said. Tens of thousands of people have been hospitalized.
In Georgia, people are still getting sick at higher rates, though the death rate has fallen for the last few weeks after shooting upward at the start of the year.
About 75 percent of the dead in Georgia were 65 years of age or older. The flu can be especially dangerous for those with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly, sick or very young.
Eight people between ages 51 - 64 have died, as well as seven between ages 18 -51. Two were younger than 18.
Public health officials are still encouraging people to get the flu shot if they haven't, both because flu is expected to remain active for at least several more weeks and because other strains of flu are appearing with greater frequency.
“Flu is something we face every year,” said Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. J. Patrick O’Neal. “It’s not the common cold. It’s something to be reckoned with. It’s terribly important for the public to understand that the best protection we have is the seasonal flu shot.”
’Neal said it was difficult to predict how effective the flu shot is while the season is occurring but said even if it isn’t perfect, it will still provide protection from other strains of the flu and could moderate some of the symptoms of a strain that isn’t completely prevented.
“It’s not too late if in fact one hasn’t taken it yet,” he said. “It’s available at various areas across the state, but so many people are wanting to get it now, we’re recommending calling ahead."
The commissioner also said antiviral drugs should be used in the early stages of the flu to prevent the possibility of worsening sickness, and it’s best if they can be started within the first two days.
Flu symptoms can be similar to a less-serious illness like the common cold, ranging from a sore throat and runny nose to vomiting, body aches, fevers, cough and extreme tiredness. Here are some tips on telling the difference between the flu and a cold.