MODESTO -- Health officials advise residents to spread cheer, instead of the flu, while getting together with family and friends over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Flu season in the United States got off to its earliest start in nearly a decade -- and it could be a bad one.
Health officials said suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.
"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The good news is that the nation seems fairly well-prepared, Frieden said. More than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, and the vaccine formulated for this year is well-matched to the strains of the virus seen so far, CDC officials said.
Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn't happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations also are rising earlier than usual.
Dr. John Walker, public health officer for Stanislaus County, is not so confident that local residents are prepared for what could be a harsher flu season.
Public flu shot clinics and the county immunization center gave fewer vaccinations this fall than in previous years. Walker said a drop in vaccinations at community flu clinics usually is a sign that fewer residents are taking precautions.
"Now is one of the last opportunities to prepare," Walker said. "Flu cases are still sporadic (in California), but we are right on the cusp of the season."
Walker said he expects a rapid increase in flu cases in January because of holiday travel to and from flu-infected areas of the country.
There still is time for people to get a flu shot from their health care provider, pharmacies or community health clinics, he said.
The county vaccination clinic at 820 Scenic Drive will be closed through Jan. 1 as a result of county furloughs and holidays. The county health clinics will remain open, except on holidays.
Starting Jan. 2, residents without private insurance can get flu shots at the county vaccination clinic from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. Cost is $10 per child and $25 per adult. No one is turned away for inability to pay.
"Everyone 6 months and over should get a flu shot," Walker said.
Health officials also recommend that people take precautions such as not touching their eyes, nose or mouth; covering coughs and sneezes with their sleeve or a tissue; washing hands frequently; and staying home when sick.
The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths. The dominant type of flu at that time was the same one seen this year.
One key difference between then and now: In 2003-04, the vaccine was poorly matched to the predominant flu strain. Also, there's more vaccine now, and vaccination rates have risen for the general public and for key groups such as pregnant women and health care workers.
On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.
Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches, and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.