It's not time to breathe easy yet, officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn -- but the fact remains that flu-like illness accounted for fewer doctor visits this week than it did last week.
This past week represented the third consecutive week of national decreases in flu reports after four consecutive weeks of sharp increases. As health officials note that nearly all of the influenza that is currently circulating is the novel H1N1 swine flu strain, the downturn has offered hope for some that the country may have turned the corner on this wave of the pandemic illness.
"We might actually be beyond the peak," Dr. Pascal James Imperato, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate in New York, told ABC News' David Muir. Imperato, who has studied influenza for 37 years, said the decline in flu activity may indicate "the beginning of a downswing."
Still, Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Friday that even though reports of the flu may be at a nationwide lull for now, it does not necessarily mean we're out of the woods yet.
"The national average looking lower doesn't mean that in every state or community that it's a little better this week than before," Schuchat said during a press conference. "I wish I knew if we had hit the peak ... even when a peak has occurred, half of the people who are going to get ill haven't gotten ill yet. A peak in outpatient activity is not the same as a peak in hospitalizations and deaths, which often lag."
Forty-three states still have geographically widespread flu activity; 21 flu pediatric deaths were reported this week, 15 of which were confirmed to be due to H1N1. According to the CDC, influenza levels are still well above what is expected for this time of year, and they could surge again.
Meanwhile, health officials and health care providers in many areas of the country are breathing a sigh of relief -- albeit a cautious one -- as the number of confirmed cases of H1N1, as well as flu-related emergency room visits and ICU cases, begins to decline.
In addition to reports from health departments across the country of a decrease in flu activity, ABC News heard from 30 hospitals throughout the country that say flu activity is down.
"The wave has crested in our region. The real question now is how long the wave will continue to roll ashore," said Frank James, health officer for San Juan County, Wash. "We could still be seeing cases into the winter months."
In Maryland, health officials have reported declining levels of hospitalization for swine flu since a spike last month.
"In the last several weeks we are noticing a downturn [and] it appears we have reached a peak in this outbreak," Maryland's secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, John Colmers told ABC News.
Two months ago, Dell's Children's Medical Center in Austin, Tex. had to set up tents outside the hospital to handle the influx of as many as 280 flu patients a day, doctors at the hospital told Muir. But as of Thursday, most of these tents are down, as are the numbers of flu cases; the hospital is seeing about 70 flu patients a day now -- one quarter of what they were seeing before.