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Boston Reels Under Flu Outbreak

With flu cases spiking in the U.S. city of Boston, the mayor has taken an unusual step. He has declared a public health emergency and is urging people to get vaccinated. While not everyone believes there is a crisis, the declaration is making many Bostonians take action.

Hand washing is a big deal at the Tufts Medical Center emergency room. Nurse Sandy Gibbons said they've seen a surge of flu patients in the last couple weeks .

“And it came on very fast. That's what we've noticed. It went from being a trickle to inundated within a matter of two to three days,” said Gibbons.

Hospitals are inundated across Boston. Influenza cases are up more than 10-fold from last year's mild season. And that's a challenge for hospitals that already are nearly full, said Dr. David Hooper at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“The surge in influenza patients since early December has really added a lot more pressure on managing beds and making sure everyone gets the care they need,” he said.

But while 47 of the 50 U.S. states are reporting widespread flu activity, the response from Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is so far unique.

“Today [January 9] I am declaring a public health emergency in the city of Boston,” said Menino.

The city is offering free flu shots at clinics across the city and urging everyone to get vaccinated.

The emergency declaration is a welcome but unexpected move, said Hooper.

“Some would call it an emergency, some would call it a challenging year that we've got to step to the next level on,” he said.

City officials say the point is to raise the urgency level for people to get vaccinated. Early figures show that only about 35 percent had received flu shots as of November.

The mayor's announcement got Leona Hampton's attention.

“I got really nervous. My doctors had talked to me previously about getting the flu shot, but I was a little leery, like, 'Oh, I never get the flu.' But I need to change my thinking,” she said.

Changing people's thinking is not easy. Dental student McKenna Cox is recovering from the flu. She did not get vaccinated, and she does not plan to next year, because, like many people, she said it's not that big a deal.

“I think it's kind of crazy, the whole manic panic about the whole thing. I mean, this is New England in the winter. People get sick,” she said.

But as they struggle to find empty beds in Boston's emergency rooms, doctors disagree.
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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.