The number of flu-related deaths in New Brunswick has jumped to four, says the province's chief medical officer of health.

"The flu is often seen as a minor illness but should not be underestimated," Dr. Eilish Cleary said during a hastily arranged news conference on Thursday.

The latest victims were all late middle-aged to elderly with high-risk complications, she said.

Cleary could not say whether they had been vaccinated, where they were from or when they died. "We're still analyzing our information, it's still preliminary," she said.

But there have been more than 300 confirmed cases of seasonal influenza reported to public health right across the province, said Cleary.

'My assessment of it is that this is a moderate flu season with some patches of unusual severity across the country. And so we’re keeping a closer eye on it.' - Dr. Eilish Cleary, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health

"Obviously it’s more concentrated in the areas where there’s a greater population. So that is the Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton areas."

At least 51 people have been hospitalized since mid-December, including 15 admissions to intensive care units.

The hospitalized patients have ranged in age from one to 86, she said.

The vast majority of the most severe cases are people who are considered high-risk and would have been eligible for the flu vaccine, said Cleary.

"We don't have sufficient information yet to say how many were actually vaccinated, but know that many of them were not."

Most cases H1N1

Shawna McNally

Shawna McNally, 43, of Fredericton, died on Jan. 8, from complications arising from the H1N1 flu strain. (Courtesy of Britton Funeral Home)

Overall, the number of influenza cases is similar to last year, but the predominant strain is H1N1, said Cleary.

"H1N1 is a strain of influenza that can cause serious illness in vulnerable populations," including those with other illnesses, the elderly, small children and pregnant women, she said.

"It is important to remember, however, there are flu-related hospitalizations and deaths every year," Cleary said.

"My assessment of it is that this is a moderate flu season with some patches of unusual severity across the country. And so we’re keeping a closer eye on it," she said.

"I'm fairly comfortable with what we're doing at this point in time."

Earlier this week, Cleary announced influenza had claimed its first victim of the season.

Shawna McNally, a 43-year-old mother and grandmother in Fredericton, died at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital on Jan. 8 after her body, weakened from drug abuse years ago, couldn't battle the effects of H1N1.

Her death sparked a demand for flu vaccinations across the province.

Many providers have run out, or are close to running out, but public health officials have said more supplies are expected within days.

The H1N1 strain is part of this year's flu vaccine.

Cleary is encouraging anyone who had not gotten the flu shot to get one.

The provincial government provides the vaccine for free to at-risk groups. Others must pay $25.

Asked about the possibility of expanding the publicly-funded program to everyone, Cleary said "there's no epidemiological evidence at this point in time to change that."

"It’s always a balance between providing good value for taxpayers' funding … and making sure that we protect those who need it most. I think we’ve got a good balance at this point in time," she said.

"But certainly we’ll continue to look and if there’s any reason to change, then we will do so."