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Flu this year hitting early -- and hard

From the Rocky Mountains to New England, hospitals are swamped with people with flu symptoms. Some medical centers are turning away visitors or making them wear face masks. One Pennsylvania hospital set up a tent outside its ER to deal with the feverish patients.

Flu season in the United States has struck early and, in many places, hard.

While flu normally doesn't blanket the country until late January or February, it is already widespread in more than 40 states, with about 30 reporting some major hot spots. Yesterday, health officials blamed the flu for the deaths of 20 children so far.

Whether this will be considered a bad season by the time it has run its course in the spring remains to be seen.

"Those of us with gray hair have seen worse," said Dr. William Schaffner, a flu expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The evidence so far points to a moderate season, Schaffner and others say.

It looks bad in part because last year was unusually mild and because the main strain of flu circulating this year tends to make people sicker and really lay them low.

The flu's early arrival coincided with spikes in a variety of other viruses, including a childhood malady that mimics flu and a new norovirus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, commonly known as "stomach flu." So what people are calling the flu may, in fact, be something else.

Most people don't undergo lab tests to confirm flu, and the symptoms are so similar that it can be hard to distinguish flu from other viruses, or even a cold. Flu is a major contributor, though, to what's going on, experts say.

Shots are recommended for everyone 6 months or older. Of the 20 children killed, only two had been fully vaccinated.

Europe is also suffering an early flu season, though a milder strain predominates.