According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, Calhoun is one of 37 counties in the state reporting significant, widespread influenza virus activity. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Alabama is one of 10 states where the flu is widespread.
Local and state health experts say the flu season got an early start and is now in full swing. However, experts add that for residents who have been vaccinated against the virus, the chances of infection this flu season appear to be low.
“The flu is definitely being seen a lot earlier and is a lot more prevalent in the general population,” said Joey Vice, nursing director of emergency services at Stringfellow Memorial Hospital in Anniston. “But the general consensus among our physicians is that most of the people showing symptoms of flu have not been vaccinated.”
Vice said Stringfellow first received positive tests of the flu in patients in August. By the week of Thanksgiving, Stringfellow's number of positive flu tests increased and during December, the hospital had 163 confirmed cases, Vice said.
Alabama’s flu season typically starts after Christmas or in early January.
“You don't know when the flu season is going to hit, but you know when it's here,” said Dr. Henry Lemley, emergency medical physician at Regional Medical Center in Anniston.
Lemley said RMC has seen a steady increase in patients with flu-like symptoms in the past month. Flu symptoms can include fever, coughing, sore throat, muscle aches and extreme fatigue.
In the first two weeks of December, RMC averaged 10 patients per day who had the flu, Lemley said. In the last week of December, the average jumped to 16 patients per day. Lemley added that in the last four days, RMC averaged 30 patients per day exhibiting flu symptoms.
“This is a typical, average flu season for us,” Lemley said.
Lemley said that like Stringfellow, the majority of RMC's flu patients were not vaccinated.
Donald Williamson, state health officer, said the flu season is particularly intense right now because it started earlier than usual.
“But we can’t predict whether that means we’ll have a longer or shorter flu season,” Williamson said.
Williamson said the dominant flu virus circulating this year is influenza type A, also known as H1N1, which created a flu pandemic in 2009. This flu season's batch of vaccine includes protection against the type A strain, Williamson said.
“It's not too late to get vaccinated,” Williamson said. “There is still plenty of vaccine available.”
Phyllis Coughran, immunization manager for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said the Calhoun County Health Department has used 800 doses of the vaccine, the bulk of its supply.
"We have a very minimum amount left," Coughran said.
Coughran said county health departments do not receive huge supplies of the vaccine as they have in years past because so many pharmacies now offer it.
"Drug stores and physicians still have plenty of the vaccine," she said.
Mike Parris, pharmacist at Martin's Pharmacy in Oxford, said demand for the flu vaccine was high in October and November, but has since dropped off. Parris said most insurers cover the cost of flu shots. A flu shot costs $30 for those without insurance, he said.
Parris noted that his pharmacy also has plenty of the antiviral medication Tamiflu.
"We're dispensing a good bit of Tamiflu," Parris said.
Lemley said Tamiflu is effective if used within the first 48 hours of the appearance of flu symptoms.
"It lessens the severity of the symptoms and lessens their duration," Lemley said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.