Getting a flu shot to avoid the nasty virus may be the last thing on the minds of Southwest Florida residents rebuilding their lives after the destruction of Hurricane Ian.
Still, health officials are urging residents, especially vulnerable seniors, those with chronic conditions and pregnant women, to get a flu shot.
Influenza cases are expected to rise as protective measures have been abandoned since the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Mary Beth Saunders, chief epidemiologist at Lee Health, the public hospital system in Lee County. .
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“The wearing of masks has essentially gone to the side,” he said. “Just because we’re not taking precautions, we’re going to get a spike in cases. It’s just a matter of when and how fast.”
The 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 can sometimes lead to death, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot every year.
Flu season started Oct. 1, but that probably hasn’t happened to anyone in Southwest Florida since Ian hit the region three days earlier on Sept. 28.
Ian caused a devastating storm surge that peaked at 15 feet in parts of Lee County and decimated Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Pine Island. The hurricane brought five to 10 feet of storm surge to the Collier County coast.
Preliminary damage estimates in Lee are $7.3 billion. Collier’s damage is set at $2.2 billion.
How do the numbers look now?
Flu cases at Lee Health are on the rise and could be an indicator of things to come.
Cases at Lee Health jumped 118% from Oct. 1 to the end of last week, from 76 cases to 166 cases on Oct. 29, hospital data shows.
Saunders acknowledges that getting a flu shot now, given people living in damaged homes, is not a priority.
“But the last thing you want is to get the flu, so get a flu shot,” he said.
Winter residents with damaged homes are returning and there are many out-of-town repair contractors in the region that can cause the flu to spread.
“I am concerned that many of them have not been vaccinated,” he said. “And they probably don’t know where to go to get it.”
The NCH Healthcare System in Collier County had seen only 18 cases of the flu at the start of the flu season.
Demand for this year’s flu shot from patients at NCH doctors’ offices has been similar to that of 2021, said Lisa Fletcher, director of the NCH Medical Center.
“(We) reminded the public of the importance of getting an annual flu shot,” he said in an email. “The flu vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting the flu, especially for children 6 months and older, the elderly, or people with compromised immune systems.”
Symptoms and status 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 that the southeast and south central parts of the country are seeing an increase in cases this year.
There have been 880,000 flu cases so far this year and 360 deaths. Approximately 6,900 people have been hospitalized across the country due to the flu.
The vaccine is recommended for everyone over 6 months of age, and while it won’t prevent everyone from getting the virus, it does lower your chances of getting sick and may lessen the severity of illness.
Common symptoms of the flu 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 vaccinated against the flu?
There are places to get the shots here in addition to commercial outlets like CVS and Walmart stores that offer the shots.
* Visit www.leehealth.org for more information.
* Call NCH Healthcare System at 239-624-7777.
* The State Department of Health in Collier County. Visit collier.floridahealth.gov for more information on seasonal flu or call 239-252-8555
* The flu shot 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.