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.
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“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.
In Manatee County, the numbers of people getting the flu are fairly normal, according to John Burns, public information officer for the Manatee County Health Department.
Aside from getting the shot, Burns recommends using precautions to prevent it from spreading, “If you get sick stay home.”
“The standard precautions are covering your mouth and nose using the crook in your arms, washing your hands thoroughly and carrying those hand sensitizers with you.”
The flu shot is effective for about a year after it is administered.
“You don’t get the flu, you get flu like symptoms,” Kenia Perez, a pharmacy technician at the Walgreens said. “It’s like getting over a cold.”
The state also 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.
If things go as usual, the heightened flu activity will probably move north in the next two weeks, Gill said.
Flu shots are available at the Manatee County Health Department, Walgreens, Publix, CVS and other locations.
Paradise Afshar, Bradenton Herald reporter, also contributed to this report.