After a 2017-18 flu season that many considered the worst in 40 years, Tampa Bay area health officials are warning residents to get vaccinated early.
More than 80,000 people in the United States, including 180 children, died last season because of the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 900,000 people were hospitalized, including many in Tampa Bay.
Residents and visitors overwhelmed emergency rooms across the bay area in early 2018. Pinellas was among the most active counties in the state for outbreaks during peak season. Influenza-like illnesses were reported at higher levels in Florida by the start of the year than during the peak of the last two flu seasons, health officials said.
The state reported 515 outbreaks in all, and at least six child deaths from the flu since October 2017.
"This year, there’s a lot of concern because last year was so bad. We saw a very high number of pediatric deaths," said Jill Roberts, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. "The major concern is that people are less likely to get the vaccine, which will have a downstream effect and more serious consequences."
Doctors say it’s too early to tell whether this flu season will be as bad as the last. But the Florida Department of Health says it is already gearing up for additional outbreaks expected in the coming weeks.
"While our flu season peaks in the early months of the year, early vaccination ensures protection during the holiday season when many gather for celebrations and family events," the department said in a statement.
So people shouldn’t wait, doctors say. Most are encouraging their patients to get the flu shot by Halloween this year. Some medical organizations were urging parents to vaccinate their children immediately once the shot became available last month, Roberts said.
"The best time to get vaccinated is in October," said Dr. John Morrison, a family medicine physician with Florida Hospital in Wesley Chapel. "It takes two weeks for the body to produce antibodies to fight the flu. You don’t want to get it too late."
Meanwhile, promotions for flu shots are already in full swing.
For a limited time, Publix is offering $10 grocery gift cards to people who get their shot in a store pharmacy.
Local health departments are offering free shots through their clinics this month. The first no-cost clinic day in Pinellas will be Oct. 17.
At Florida Blue centers across the state, patients can get a free flu shot from 10 a.m. to noon every Thursday of this month. The Florida Hospital Centra Care in Carrollwood is offering free shots on Monday. And USF’s College of Public Health will host a free flu shot day Oct. 19 on campus.
Adults 65 and older and children are at the highest risk for severe complications from influenza-like illnesses.
"There are still a lot of people who believe the flu vaccine can give them the flu, even though scientifically that’s not possible," said Roberts, the USF professor. "Another barrier is access-to-care issues. It can be difficult to get the shot, and working with your insurance to cover it."
Last year’s high activity is attributed to a number of factors, the first being the low number of people who were vaccinated. Another factor was a strain of influenza that was so common it impacted seniors more than any other age group. According to the CDC, most of those who died from the flu last year were over 65.
Morrison, the Florida Hospital doctor, fears this year may be another busy season for flu activity in the state.
"That’s why people should get the shot," he said. "Tons of people get the flu each year, and the health care cost alone is staggering. Thousands are treated. We can’t emphasize enough to get the vaccine. Especially if you are pregnant, work in health care or travel frequently."
Another issue: Last year’s flu vaccine was criticized for being less effective than in previous years. But physicians warn that getting the vaccine is still better than having no defense at all.
"Even if there is a chance that the efficacy rate is low, it’s always higher than zero," Roberts said. "It’s better than nothing."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.