ATLANTA (AP) _ Federal health officials have confirmed what the nation's beleaguered hospitals already knew: The flu has become an epidemic.

Deaths attributed to the flu reached epidemic levels in the last week of December and first week of January in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The epidemic, the nation's first flu epidemic since 1989, could get worse. February traditionally is the peak month of the flu season, which runs through March.

''It has filled our hospital to overflowing,'' said Orbenia Stewart, admissions clerk at suburban Atlanta's DeKalb Medical Center, one of dozens of hospitals nationwide reporting bed shortages because of influenza.

''This week's been horrendous, the hardest week I've had in 23 years there,'' she said Saturday.

The flu was linked to 7.2 percent of the deaths in 121 cities the CDC monitored in the two-week period, Dr. Larry Schonberger, assistant director of the CDC's viral diseases program, said Friday.

An epidemic is declared when the death rate is appreciably higher than the projected rate, which was 6.2 percent.

Flu normally kills about 24,000 Americans each winter. The CDC has not projected how many could die this winter.

By Friday, the CDC had recorded widespread flu outbreaks, though not necessarily at epidemic levels, in 31 states. The worst were in the Northeast and other states along the Atlantic coast. Most are of the worst flu strain, a subtype of the ''Type A'' virus called the Beijing flu.

The strain, historically hard on the elderly, brings high fever, aches, pains and extreme fatigue. It's usually transmitted through the air or by shaking hands.

Hospitals in New Jersey and Connecticut said crowding caused by the flu has reached crisis proportions.

Cooper Medical Center in Camden, N.J., is advising ambulances to take all but the most seriously ill patients elsewhere. Its emergency room is treating 50 patients more than the daily average of 110, Dr. Michael Chansky said.

In Connecticut, the 200-bed New Britain General Hospital had been sending overflow patients to the University of Connecticut Health Center, but now that center is nearly full.

''We don't know what is going to happen next,'' New Britain spokesman Joseph Crawley said.

In West Virginia, three hospitals are restricting visitors to immediate family and clergy to try to curb the virus' spread. The state reported 8,800 new cases of flulike illness last week alone, said state epidemiologist Loretta Haddy.

The flu also hit nursing homes. The Friends Home at Woodstown, N.J., last week began restricting visitation to try to keep the virus from spreading, said nursing director Marie Allcorn.

The New York Times reported Saturday that the Parkview Nursing Home in suburban Massapequa closed its doors to visitors and volunteers Jan. 2 after 63 percent of its residents came down with the flu.

Elderly people are waiting to seek treatment for the flu until the virus becomes more serious, causing pneumonia and bronchitis, said Sally Howell, nursing supervisor at Georgia's DeKalb Medical Center.

''We don't see them until they're really sick,'' she said. ''It would help if they saw their private physician early.''

The 480-bed facility is full, and has had to refer patients to other hospitals. Others have lined the hallways waiting for beds.

''When we don't have beds available, we shuffle them around until we have a bed for them,'' Ms. Howell said.