Local hospitals are reporting a marked increase in the number of patients admitted with the flu or flulike symptoms. The numbers mirror a national trend in which flu season has hit earlier and in greater numbers than usual.
"December was the busiest I've seen it in a while," said Dr. Wassam Rahman, medical director of the emergency center at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. "At some times we were seeing 20 to 30 patients an hour all with the same thing — fever, cough, coldlike symptoms. Usually, it was an otherwise healthy child who developed the symptoms and everyone in the family got it."
Emergency departments in Hillsborough County reported that 35 percent more people arrived Tuesday with the flu or flulike symptoms than they had expected.
"We are seeing a surge of cases, a gradual increase in cases each week for the past three weeks," said Dr. Douglas Holt, health officer for the Hillsborough County Department of Health. "We expect to see cases eventually plateau, remain the same for two consecutive weeks, then drop off. Then we know we're over the worst of it. We haven't plateaued yet, but there has been no astronomical increase in cases."
On Monday, Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg treated about 180 patients with the flu or flulike symptoms — more than the average of 130 patients for this time of year.
The numbers are high enough that the hospital, in order to stop the virus from spreading, is isolating all patients who arrive with flulike symptoms until they can be diagnosed or discharged.
"We are taking extra measures with flu patients, giving them masks to wear and keeping them isolated, putting them in one room in the emergency department and not moving them from room to room," said Jennifer Fredericks, an emergency physician at Bayfront. "We see a lot of patients in our emergency department who are already sick with other things or are pregnant, so to prevent them from getting flu, we are taking extra precautionary preventive steps."
Tampa General Hospital has also seen an increase in flu cases, said hospital spokeswoman Ellen Fiss. But doctors there were not taking any special precautionary measures, though they did ask new patients arriving with flu symptoms to wear a mask.
Not all hospitals noted an increase.
Lisa Creswell, a spokeswoman for BayCare hospitals, including Morton Plant-Mease, St. Anthony's and St. Joseph's, said the numbers they've seen are typical for this time of year. Still, she acknowledged that flu season did seem to arrive earlier than usual.
"We consistently monitor for flulike illnesses and always take precautions," Creswell said. "We give the flu vaccine to patients who are admitted who meet the criteria, and we encourage our team members to get the flu vaccine."
Statewide, most Florida counties reported no or mild flu activity as of the last week of 2012, according to the Department of Health. Moderate flu activity was reported in 20 counties, including Hillsborough and Pasco. The numbers are increasing in all regions of the state, which is normal, health officials say.
Flu season in Florida typically peaks in January or February. Nationwide, though, the season is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade. And this year's strain is looking more severe than usual.
Boston declared a public health emergency Wednesday as Massachusetts reported 18 flu-related deaths so far.
The city is working with health care centers to offer free flu vaccines and also hopes to set up places where people can get vaccinated. Officials said there had been four flu-related deaths in Boston, all elderly residents, since the unofficial start of the flu season on Oct. 1.
Doctors say many people dismiss flu symptoms as not that serious, but severe infections routinely lead to hospitalizations and even death. Thousands die from influenza every year.
It's easy to mistake the flu for a bad cold, but flu symptoms are more severe and come about suddenly, within hours. Signs of the flu can include fever, coughs, nausea, sore throat, body aches, and fatigue.
The good news, officials say, is that much of the nation is well-prepared for the flu onslaught — more than a third of Americans have been vaccinated.
"Most people think it's too late to get a flu shot because the season is well under way," Fredericks said. "It's not too late. Flu season can last into March or even as late as May."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.