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 clear why, but the flu began showing up a couple of weeks earlier than usual. "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 — which is widely available — is a good match. H1N1, or 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.
Officials underscored the danger flu poses to pregnant women, people with chronic disease and those whose immunity is compromised. 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 the residents and 5 percent of the 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.
The state also has had 123 deaths from flu and pneumonia so far this season, which Gill said is pretty normal. However, 4.5 percent of all emergency room visits in Florida are now for flu-like symptoms, which is more than twice what the ERs usually see 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.