Flu season is starting earlier than usual, just like last year, but it's too soon to tell how severe it will be, local and state health officials said Monday.
There have been 22 flu cases reported in Beaufort County since Sept. 29, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. That's three more than were reported at this time last year, the agency's figures show.
"We certainly haven't seen any dramatic year-over-year increases early on," state epidemiologist Linda Bell said. "But we're not far enough into flu season yet, so it's difficult to predict."
Local health officials said there is no indication this flu season, which runs from about November though March, will mirror last year's, when a statewide outbreak led to 15 deaths between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Two people in Beaufort County died of the flu last season.
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At Beaufort Memorial Hospital, no one has been hospitalized for the flu this season, according to infection-prevention coordinator Beverly Yoder.
"Hopefully it stays like this," she said. "We've seen more respiratory illness, but not any flu."
No flu patients have been hospitalized at Hilton Head Hospital, either.
"Is it luck?" hospital spokeswoman Kelly Presnell asked. "I think people took the vaccines seriously. They were really in demand."
Nationally, health care providers were adamant about providing enough flu vaccine this year to avoid a shortage. In September, manufacturers pledged to produce between 135 million and 139 million doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
DHEC has offered flu shots statewide since Sept. 23, spokeswoman Lindsey Evans said. This season's shot is a new type of vaccine that protects against four flu strains: A-H1N1, A-H3N2 and two strains of influenza B.
Early results show the vaccine is working across the state.
There have been about 2,500 fewer in-state cases reported this year, according to DHEC statistics.
Flu cases typically increase in the winter as people spend more time inside and closer to one another, Yoder said.
She encouraged those who have not received a flu shot to sign up for one. Flu shots typically cost $25 but are free with Medicare, Medicaid and certain health insurance plans.
"It's never too late in the season," Yoder said. "We're well-stocked, and it's still early enough to prevent getting sick."
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.