By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The flu continues to spread. Federal health officials says this is “not a good way to start the season.”

The flu usually peaks in January. Last year was one of the worst flu seasons in Pennsylvania. There were more than 14,000 confirmed cases per week.

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Health officials say we’re nowhere near that now but the cases are increasing significantly.

Pennsylvania has 1,633 lab-confirmed cases of flu — a fraction of the number of people who’ve been sick with influenza.

Nationwide, the highest flu activity is in seven Southern states.

The CDC says this is the highest infection rate at this point of the season in a decade. A total of 573 flu-related hospitalizations have been recorded, along with five pediatric deaths.

Health departments in Texas are being flooded with flu patients.

“We’re seeing about a 500% increase, from the first week of October to the first week of November,” said Mark Escott, with Austin Public Health.

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It’s an early uptick considering the flu typically begins to gain steam after Christmas, due in part to holiday gatherings.

Another concern, the U.S. flu season tends to reflect Australia’s, which just ended.

“I was in Australia this summer when it was going on. Schools shut down, businesses shut down due to outbreaks,” Escott said. “Record numbers of flu cases and record numbers of deaths associated with flu.”

Australia’s flu season was so bad the vaccine being used in America was adjusted to include the Influenza A strain that got so many sick.

U.S. health officials are hoping the new vaccine strain provides better coverage than in years past when it wasn’t so protective.

In our area, Pennsylvania has a lot more flu cases than New Jersey, where there are 66 confirmed cases, compared to 20 in Delaware.

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Doctors are reminding everyone it’s not too late to get a flu shot, now being especially important to be protected before the Christmas holiday.

Stephanie Stahl