Flu levels normal for this time of year in Collier and Lee, but one death reported

Dr. Meeta Khan wears a face mask as she examines a respiratory patient at the Rush University Hospital emergency department, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, in Chicago. Flu season in the U.S. has hit early and, in some places, hard. But whether this will be considered a bad season by the time it has run its course in the spring remains to be seen. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Dr. Meeta Khan wears a face mask as she examines a respiratory patient at the Rush University Hospital emergency department, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, in Chicago. Flu season in the U.S. has hit early and, in some places, hard. But whether this will be considered a bad season by the time it has run its course in the spring remains to be seen. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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— Flu arrived early in Southwest Florida and there's been one known death already in Lee County, all of which indicates residents and visitors need to prepare for what could be a strong flu season in the weeks to come, public health officials say.

The Lee Memorial Health System in Lee County reports one recent death of a 65-year-old man and expects the overall number of flu cases to be around 90 new cases for the week, Lee Memorial spokeswoman Mary Briggs said.

That's based on admitted patients and emergency room visits and doesn't include those seen in physicians' offices.

Her message to the public is to get the flu vaccine and take other precautions, such as frequent hand washing.

"We expect flu season to continue in February, and possibly March, so if you have not gotten a flu shot, we encourage you to do so," she said. "If you have flu symptoms, please see your primary care physician immediately so you can start treatment."

In Collier County, the flu season has been fairly normal, Collier Health Department spokeswoman Deb Millsap said.

"So far, although we are seeing an increase in influenza-like illness in Collier, it is typical of the increase we see this time of year," Millsap said.

The Collier Health Department doesn't track actual numbers of flu cases and instead looks at trends of influenza-like illness, Millsap said.

That's because few people actually get tested to confirm if they have flu, she said.

"But there have been no deaths," Millsap said. "That's not to say we wouldn't expect that to happen, especially in the elderly."

The emergency rooms at NCH Naples Downtown and North Naples hospitals are busier with more cases but it's normal this time of year, said Georgine Kruedelbach, director of infection prevention for the NCH Healthcare System.

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"We are seeing an upswing, which we see typically this year, and maybe a little bit more severe cases are coming in, but this is typically what we see in January," she said. "The severity is worse, the clients are all sicker. It's mainly the elderly."

NCH does expect its flu case load to increase because people come here from the north, Kruedelbach said.

Physicians Regional Healthcare System, with hospitals on Pine Ridge Road and Collier Boulevard, reports that 16 percent of its emergency room patients are coming in for flu-like illness, Physicians Regional spokeswoman Taylor Hamilton said.

"At this time, we have no reported deaths," she said.

Everyone needs to take precautions, particularly the elderly and children, who are more susceptible to flu, Millsap said. The best defense is the flu vaccine, frequent hand washing, not sharing utensils and sneezing or coughing into one's sleeve.

Although flu isn't a reportable illness to public health authorities, the five hospitals in Lee are voluntarily reporting confirmed flu cases and other respiratory illnesses to the Lee County Health Department.

"Where we have seen a spike was the last two weeks in December," Lee health spokeswoman Diane Holm said. "It came a little bit early. We are a little bit ahead of normal but we are still fairly average."

Lee County still is classified by the state as mild for its overall level of flu but that could change, she added.

"It could be a busy flu season having started early," Holm said.

Southwest Florida normally sees a spike of flu in late January to early February, Holm said. That's in part because northern visitors come to Southwest Florida and bring the flu and respiratory illnesses with them, Holm said.

High numbers of flu and severe cases nationwide in recent weeks may now be starting to wane, Holm said.

Millsap, of the Collier Health Department, said even though an uptick locally usually occurs in late January to early February, there were cases of flu-like illness this past summer.

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