YOUR NEIGHBOR the next cubicle over coughs loudly, then you overhear him complaining about a fever — and you wonder if you might be the next victim. You quickly type “preventing the flu” into Google, and your query becomes one more indication to the search engine’s mavens that this year’s influenza season is bad. In conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Google’s Flu Trendstracks influenza activity in real time by monitoring how often people search for flu-related terms. It wouldn’t surprise anyone who has tried to sign in at a packed emergency room or who is trying to obtain scarce vaccine that Google reckons that flu activity in the United States is “intense.”
But the country has been — and should continue — preparing for worse.
CDC data out Friday show that the flu struck early this season, shooting up in December when it usually peaks in January or February, and it struck hard. Doctor visits for influenza-like illness, a primary measure of infection, are classified as high for half the country. The last time flu activity was this severe so early was during the particularly deadly 2003-04 season. Add an influenza cliff, too, to the possible drags on the economy; normal flu seasons cost the country more than $10 billion. This year, more Americans cashing in sick days might push that toll up.