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Pinellas is at the center of a rise in Florida flu outbreaks

You should still get a flu shot. Flu season typically peaks December through February but can last until May, and it usually takes about two weeks for the shot's immunity to kick in. [Dreamstime]
Published Jan. 16, 2018

Feeling a little sniffly or scratchy or stuffed up? It may be the flu, and you don't want to wait around to see a doctor this year.

This is not the time to write off flu-like symptoms, Tampa Bay area health officials and doctors warn. The influenza virus is more widespread and active this year than in recent history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Florida, influenza-like illnesses such as the flu are being reported at higher levels now than during the peak of the last two flu seasons. And the virus continues to gain steam across the state.

RELATED: Defending against this season's deadly flu: 5 things to know

Pinellas County has reported more than five outbreaks of flu this season, among the most of any county in the state so far, according to the Florida Department of Health.

"Flu activity is increasing throughout the state. There are more cases in the northern part of the state right now, and Pinellas is still listed as moderate. But we're only in mid-January," said Maggie Hall, a spokeswoman with Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. "We will most likely see increases in the coming weeks if the season turns out to be typical."

Adults ages 65 and older and children are the most at risk for severe complications from influenza-like illnesses.

"It's so important for kids to get the flu shot," said Dr. Allison Simpson, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Florida Hospital in Tampa. "Since children under six months cannot get a flu shot, any adult who is handling young children needs to get immunized. It's easy to pass the flu on to a baby they're watching."

As of mid-January, the health department reported two child deaths in Florida, but one child was not vaccinated and had other underlying health conditions. Already this year, visits to Florida emergency rooms by older adults are well above the peaks reported during the last two flu seasons, the health department said.

"This is the first year we had the entire continental U.S. be the same color on the graph, meaning there's widespread activity in all of the continental U.S. at this point," said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "It is in a lot of places and causing a lot of flu."

Florida seems to be faring better than other states. California has reported 27 flu-related deaths already, and hospitals are setting up tents to help treat the overwhelming number of patients seeking help.

Tampa Bay area hospitals are reporting a sharp increase in the number of patients coming into emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms, but no single hospital seems overwhelmed by the number of patients.

"We are not turning anyone away and nothing has changed operationally," said Beth Hardy, a spokeswoman for BayCare Health System, which operates 15 hospitals including St. Joseph's in Tampa, St. Anthony's in St. Petersburg and Morton Plant in Clearwater.

At Florida Hospital — which operates a number of hospitals and emergency rooms in Tampa, Wesley Chapel, Tarpon Springs and Palm Harbor, among other locations — staffers have seen triple the number of flu-related cases in the last quarter of 2017 compared to 2016, said spokeswoman, Richelle Hoenes-Ahearn.

TO YOUR HEALTH: Keep track of trends and new developments that affect you. Visit the Times health page.

Jernigan said it appears the flu season is peaking early, similar to what officials saw in 2013 and 2014. As of last week, the CDC was reporting nearly 23 hospitalizations from flu-like symptoms for every 100,000 people in the U.S., up from 13.7 the week before.

It doesn't help that the flu vaccine this year has been criticized as being less effective than in previous years. Officials suggest it's about 30 percent effective, but most still advise people to get the vaccine now, even though it's late in the season.

"There are so many comments in social media about the ineffectiveness of the flu vaccine that some people are opting not to get it. Our message is that any protection is better than none, and we are continuing to encourage people to get the vaccine," said Hall, the health department spokeswoman.

"It can be a challenge for vaccines to match the exact strain out there sometimes. The vaccine will provide some protection and you're more likely to have a less severe case if you do become ill."

There's likely still another 11 weeks of flu season to go, Jernigan said, which means it's not too late to get the vaccine.

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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