Even before Labor Day could signal the traditional end of summer, the seasonal flu vaccine was available at local drugstores, and health officials were urging nearly everybody to roll up their sleeves.
But after last year's swine flu pandemic fizzled, sickening far fewer people than feared, and the news broke that flu hasn't been as deadly as advertised for years, will Americans clamor for the vaccine?
Just like flu season itself, what happens next is anyone's guess, experts say.
"Each flu season is unpredictable, and we can't really predict when flu season might start and how severe it might be," said Tom Skinner, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "And it's really hard to predict what kind of uptake we might have when it comes to vaccination."
In the past, the vaccine was recommended for about 85 percent of Americans. Now, for the first time, the CDC is urging near-universal vaccination. Except those allergic to eggs, the growing medium for the flu vaccine, nearly all people older than 6 months should get the annual shot.
The change reflects a reality underscored by swine flu's victims last year: Flu isn't just dangerous for the very old, or those with frail immune systems, although they're especially vulnerable. It can also prove fatal to children, healthy pregnant women and other young adults.
Last year, the United States logged 12,000 deaths, 60 million illnesses and 265,000 hospitalizations from flu. The swine flu epidemic disproportionately affected the young, in part because they hadn't had an opportunity to develop any immunity to the H1N1 virus, as older people had.
Still, that mortality figure is a lot less than officials had feared. Furthermore, the CDC recently announced that the often-cited figure of 36,000 deaths per year due to flu isn't really so consistent. The toll varies widely each year, and can range from 3,000 in an exceptionally mild year to 49,000 in a severe one. Recent years haven't been so bad for flu deaths.
Susan Gordon says that's no reason not to get your flu shot.
"Since we don't really know if or when there's going to be a large outbreak this year, it's best to get vaccinated early, because that way if there is an outbreak you will have that protection," said Gordon, a pharmacist and supervisor for CVS pharmacies in Tampa. She noted it takes two weeks for immunity to kick in after you are vaccinated, so it's unwise to take a wait-and-see approach.
Manufacturers are producing 160 million doses of the flu vaccine this year, which should be more than enough to meet demand, said the CDC's Skinner. In past years only about a third of Americans recommended to get vaccinated actually did so.
Each year, the shot includes the influenza strains that experts think are most likely to circulate during flu season, which traditionally peaks in January or February. The shot available now includes the swine flu strain that no one saw coming last fall. So, barring another surprise, most people will only need one shot.
Already, the Hillsborough County Health Department says it is receiving more calls than usual from residents with questions about the new vaccine — how many shots they will need, whether the swine flu strain is included.
That interest may be a hopeful sign, said health department spokesman Steve Huard. "We're hoping that translates into an increase in vaccine rates this year,'' he said, "and hopefully forever to follow."
Information from Times wires was included in this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.