The flu season hit early and hard, now leaving many area clinics, pharmacies and doctor's offices low on vaccines.
That means people seeking vaccinations now, in the middle of flu season, might be out of luck.
A brief downturn in reported flu cases, however, is prompting hope the worst might be over and the remaining stock will be enough to weather the rest of the season.
Walgreens, CVS, Publix and Kroger told area physicians Wednesday that their pharmacies have run out of flu vaccines.
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A pharmacy manager at Walgreens in Bluffton said she had 52 doses Wednesday morning and expected to run out by the end of the day.
Doctors Care clinics in Beaufort and Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island said flu shots are still available, but their supplies are dwindling.
Officials at Hilton Head, Coastal Carolina and Beaufort Memorial hospitals say they have plenty in stock for patients, but among community clinics, only Coastal Carolina's Rural Health Clinic had any vaccines remaining -- and its supply is limited.
"Everyone's down to their last bit," Hilton Head Hospital spokeswoman Kelly Presnell said, adding the hospital will not order more for community clinics because of difficulty determining actual need.
Attempts Wednesday to reach a state Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman were unsuccessful.
Despite the gloomy reports, the season might have peaked. In parts of the state, the number of patients with influenza-like illnesses dropped markedly in late December.
Beaufort County physicians participating in a DHEC reporting system noted eight positive rapid tests in the week ending Dec. 8, then five the week ending Dec. 15 and four the week ending Dec. 29. The Dec. 22 report was incomplete.
The reduction could be a result of kids being out of school for a couple of weeks, DHEC epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell told The (Columbia) State newspaper. Schools tend to be an incubator for the flu, Bell said.
The early outbreak might have prompted many parents to get flu shots for their children during the holiday break. If so, a typical post-holiday bump in flu cases in schools might be reduced, she said.
Reported flu activity in the state jumped from "sporadic" Nov. 17 to "widespread" the following week, according to DHEC. Flu season doesn't typically peak in South Carolina until February.
Dr. Lance Lowe, physician at Palmetto Pediatrics of the Lowcountry in Okatie, says the flu has been hitting people in Beaufort County "like a Mack truck" since the end of November.
There had been 862 hospitalizations and 15 deaths from the flu this season in South Carolina, as of Dec. 29. That compares to 114 hospitalizations and one death all of last season; 996 hospitalizations and 20 deaths in all of 2010-11; and 1,091 hospitalizations and 29 deaths for all of 2009-10.
Last year's flu season was the mildest in a decade, never really peaking in South Carolina. As a result, few people chose to get vaccinated. Then came the early onset this season, Lowe said.
"This year, we're having a very early flu season and a very contagious form of the flu," he said. "There is a large population with influenza, and we have been inundated with requests for flu vaccine, which is about two months too late."
He said his office ran out of flu shots in early December and again later in the month.
Unlike other parts of the country, area pharmacies and hospitals have not run short of Tamiflu, a drug that diminishes flu symptoms by one to three days.
The drug can also be taken to prevent the flu, but is only good for about 10 days, compared to six months protection from a flu shot, Lowe said.
"It quiets down the symptoms; it's not a silver bullet," Lowe said.
The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.