ST. PETERSBURG — Kindergarten teacher Linda Ploch usually has 16 students in her class.
This week, the number dwindled to four.
The flu and oak pollen seasons converged to ravage Ploch's Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School class and fill clinics, hospitals and doctors' offices in the Tampa Bay area.
The problem started with a flu vaccine that doesn't match all of this year's common strains. Then, the worst of the season hit late, coinciding with the spring blooms of oak trees that make allergy sufferers miserable. Even as people start to feel better, their weakened immune systems are easy prey for respiratory infections.
"We are having record-breaking days," said Dr. Kimberly Gibson, medical director of the Doctor's Walk-In Clinic, which has treated patients with flu and high fevers at seven locations in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. "They're not coming in because they've got a sniffle. They're really in bad shape."
The flu became widespread in Florida during the last week of February. Health officials say this flu season seems worse than average because the last two years have been mild, which made some people complacent about getting vaccinated.
It's hard to predict where in the country the flu will strike first, though it's usually worst in February, said Curtis Allen, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year Florida is one of the last states hit by the flu.
"There's no rhyme or reason to it," Allen said. "Influenza is notoriously unpredictable."
He said the CDC won't be able to tell why Florida had a later, more severe season than in recent years until it's over. The vaccine mismatch could be an explanation, but it's too soon to tell. He added that this year's flu season across the country is average compared with the last two decades.
What is unusual, though, is the double whammy of allergy and flu season in Florida.
Dr. Richard F. Lockey, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Medicine who has a private practice in Tampa, said now is the peak of oak catkins, the yellowish strands of blooms that release pollen.
For many people, these allergens inflame the nose, weakening its normal defense system and making it less able to fend off viruses like the flu and bacterial infections that lead to bronchitis. Allergies and flu both trigger asthma as well.
"If trees were made by mankind, they'd be in an awful lot of trouble because they cause so much disease," Lockey said.
Another allergist, Dr. Raquelle Alexander, said her St. Petersburg practice has cared for asthmatics sick enough to need nebulizers, a treatment usually reserved for emergency care. She regrets leaving town last week for an academic conference in Philadelphia.
"March has been a freak month," Alexander said. "I came back to an office where the phones were ringing off the hook and nobody was happy."
Hospitals in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are seeing dozens of confirmed cases of the flu a week. Doctors are also seeing patients who were vaccinated come down with the flu. Others are suffering from sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia after getting over the flu.
Hiten Upadhyay, an emergency medicine physician at Bayfront Medical Center, said he treats about five cases a day.
Allen of the CDC said people should remember that the flu is a serious disease that annually causes about 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations, mostly among people older than 65.
The Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School in Shore Acres has a policy that requires students to be fever-free for 24 hours before coming back to school. Holly Carlson, LCC director, urges parents to keep kids home one more day for a full recovery.
"Academically, it's not a problem," she said, "but it could set them back, and they could share."
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]