It may feel strange to think about flu season when the summer temperatures are still hovering in the high 80s most afternoons, but September marks the time when public health officials begin alerting the public to prepare for the worst.
The District 2 public health department based in Gainesville recently issued a press release advising residents to take precautions.
“Our hope is to remind everyone of the importance of getting vaccinated for influenza,” said District 2 spokesman Dave Palmer.
If officials are being overly cautious, it’s because last winter was one of the most severe flu seasons in recent memory.
Preventative measures for flu season
Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water. Alcohol-based gels are the next best thing, if you don’t have access to soap and water.
Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to help prevent the spread of the flu. Use a tissue or cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or arm.
Avoid touching your face as flu germs can get into the body through mucous membranes of the nose, mouth and eyes.
If you are sick, stay home from school or work. Flu sufferers should be free of a fever, without the use of a fever reducer, for at least 24 hours before returning to school or work.
At least 145 people died from the illness in Georgia, compared with just nine flu-related deaths in the state the previous season.
By early January, the flu appeared to be striking hard in almost every state.
Locally, the number of patient visits for flu and flu-related illnesses to Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville between October 2017 and Jan. 15 increased 29 percent over the same timeframe the previous year.
And the volume of patients visiting urgent care centers operated by Longstreet in Gainesville and Oakwood more than doubled.
Every year, on average, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, tens of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die from flu-related illness.
It amounts to an estimated $10.4 billion a year in direct medical expenses and an additional $16.3 billion in lost earnings annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Although flu season is typically October to May, the virus can spread at any time during the year.
“We are seeing some flu cases in our clinic,” said Dr. Fatimah Manzoor, internist at Longstreet.
Manzoor added that her colleagues treated at least 10 cases of the flu last week alone.
The flu season typically peaks in January and February, according to public health officials, but local health departments begin dispensing vaccines this month.
Manzoor said she recommends patients receive the flu vaccine by the first week in October for optimal effectiveness.
Longstreet will stock more kits to ready for the worst outcome, but Manzoor said there are too many variables to predict whether this flu season will prove as harsh as last winter.
Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and severe fatigue, and Manzoor urges patients to communicate with their doctors about how they are feeling and take a better-safe-than-sorry approach.
That’s especially true for those at the highest risk of getting the flu, such as the young and elderly, or individuals with diabetes or heart disease who may be at risk of developing flu-related complications like bronchitis or pneumonia.
Manzoor said it can be beneficial to immediately administer anti-viral medication as soon as symptoms arise.
“The most important thing … is treating the patient,” she added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.