TALLAHASSEE — The flu season has gotten off to an early start in Florida and health officials Wednesday urged people to get vaccinated.
Julia Gill, the state Health Department’s disease control director, said it’s not yet clear why, but flu began showing up in Florida a couple weeks earlier than usual. Nationally it’s looking like a normal flu season, which typically begins in late September or early October, she said.
“It’s not too late to get your flu shot,” Gill said. “That is the best way to protect yourself.”
She said most of the flu cases have been the regular seasonal strain, known as AH3, for which the vaccine is a good match. Some H1N1, also known as swine flu, has been detected as well as influenza B.
“As the snowbirds begin descending on Florida we tend to see the flu kind of become more prevalent,” said Health Department spokesman Rob Hayes, adding that usually happens around the holidays. “We need to be aware that this year it’s here a couple weeks earlier than normal.”
Florida has had three small outbreaks since the season began. One was in a long-term care facility in Brevard County, where about 15 percent of residents and 5 percent of staff got sick. Fewer than 20 cases were reported at a skilled nursing facility in Palm Beach County and at least eight children came down with the flu at a Hendry County school.
Collier County has also seen some clusters of flu activity said Deb Millsap, spokeswoman for the Collier County Health Department.
“Our activity locally is moderate ...” Millsap said. “Our local surveillance of emergency department visits and doctor office visits tells us our cases of flu began earlier this year and we are seeing more cases this week than last week. This is somewhat expected as folks come down from northern states where flu activity usually starts earlier, they tend to bring us the flu.”
The cooler weather than normal in Southwest Florida means people are staying indoors more and the flu virus thrives in a cooler climate rather than in warmer temperatures, she said. The best way to avoid flu is to get vaccinated, she said.
The state has had 123 deaths from flu and pneumonia so far this season, which Gill said is pretty normal for this time of year.
“Our surveillance system has indicated that flu activity is on the rise in all communities in Florida, but it’s higher in South Florida,” Gill said.
She said if things go as usual, the heightened flu activity will probably move north in the next two weeks.
It is still possible to get the vaccine by calling the Collier County Health Department at 252-8203 or by calling your private doctor.