Getting a flu shot to avoid the nasty virus may be the last thing on the minds of Southwest Florida residents putting their lives back together after Hurricane Ian’s destruction.
Still, health officials are urging residents, especially vulnerable seniors, people with chronic conditions and pregnant women, to get their flu immunization.
Flu cases are expected to increase because protective measures since the COVID-19 pandemic have been abandoned, said Dr. Mary Beth Saunders, chief epidemiologist for Lee Health, the public hospital system in Lee County.
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“Mask wearing has essentially gone by the way side,” she said. “Just by the fact we are not taking precautions we will get an uptick in cases. It’s just a matter of when and how quickly.”
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The best way to prevent flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year.
Flu season began Oct. 1 but that likely didn’t register with anyone in Southwest Florida since Ian slammed the region three days earlier on Sept. 28.
Ian brought devastating storm surge peaking of 15 feet in parts of Lee County and left Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Pine Island decimated. The hurricane brought five to 10 feet of surge in coastal Collier County.
Preliminary damage estimates in Lee is $7.3 billion. Collier’s damage is pegged at $2.2 billion.
What do the numbers look like now?
Flu cases at Lee Health are rising and could be an indicator of what’s to come.
Cases at Lee Health climbed 118% from Oct. 1 to the end of last week, from 76 cases to 166 cases by Oct. 29, hospital data shows.
Saunders recognizes getting a flu shot now in light of people living in damaged homes is not a priority.
“But the last thing you want is to come down with flu, so please get your flu shot,” she said.
Winter residents with damaged homes are returning and there are a lot of out-of-town remediation contractors in the region that can cause flu to spread.
“I worry a lot of them have not been vaccinated,” she said. “And they probably don’t know where to go for it.”
The NCH Healthcare System in Collier County had seen just 18 cases of flu at the start of flu season.
Demand for this year’s flu vaccine from patients at NCH physician practices has been similar to 2021, Lisa Fletcher, director of the NCH Medical Center, said.
“(We remind) the public about the importance of getting your annual flu vaccine,” she said in an email. “Flu vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting the flu, especially for children 6 months or older, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems.”
Symptoms and state data
The height of flu season in Southwest Florida is January and February, health officials say.
Individual flu cases are not reported to the Florida Department of Health but surveillance data shows flu activity is increasing statewide.
The CDC reports the Southeast and the south central part of the country are seeing an uptick in cases this year.
There have been 880,000 cases of flu so far this year and 360 deaths. Roughly 6,900 people have been hospitalized nationwide due to flu.
The vaccine is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months, and although it won’t prevent everyone from contracting the virus it does decrease the chances of getting sick and can lessen illness severity.
Common flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, according to the CDC. Some people may also experience vomiting and diarrhea.
Where to get flu shots?
Here are places to get the shots in addition to commercial outlets, like CVS and Walmart stores, that offer the shots.
* Visit www.leehealth.org for more information.
* Call the NCH Healthcare System at 239-624-7777.
* The state Department of Health in Collier County. Visit collier.floridahealth.gov for more information on seasonal influenza, or call 239-252-8555
* Flu vaccine is available by appointment at the DOH Lee office located at 3920 Michigan Avenue, Fort Myers, FL 33916. Appointments can be made by calling 239-461-6100.