Local, state and national experts are reporting indications of an early flu season this year.
Richard Rios, health program manager for the Merced County Department of Public Health, said it's still early in the flu season so the severity of this year's influenza strain is yet to be seen. On average, February is the peak season in the area, he said.
"The winter months are the primary months for a number of respiratory illnesses," Rios said.
A flu vaccine is the best way to avoid contracting the flu, he said, and it's not too late to receive the shot. It takes about two weeks to build up an immunity.
"Now is the time," Rios said.
Merced County Public Health recommends that shot-seekers first go to their primary doctor for an immunization, he said, before choosing the local clinic.
The Los Banos Clinic, 415 F St., gives immunizations on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 6 p.m. Cost is based a sliding scale, and the clinic accepts Medicare, Medi-Cal and most private insurances. Vaccines are recommended for anyone 6 months old or older.
Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. Flu-related hospitalizations also are rising earlier than usual.
More than 125 million doses of the vaccine have shipped nationally.
Tom Booth, supervising public health nurse for Fresno County, said the end of the holidays and return of children to classrooms and adults to work will jump-start flu season.
"After Christmas travel is done, I would think a lot of flu is going to be transported back to California."
Dr. John Walker, public health officer for Stanislaus County, is not confident that local residents are prepared for what could be a harsher flu season.
Public flu shot clinics and the county immunization center gave fewer vaccinations this fall than in previous years. Walker said a drop in vaccinations at community flu clinics usually is a sign that fewer residents are taking precautions.
"Now is one of the last opportunities to prepare," Walker said. "Flu cases are still sporadic (in California), but we are right on the cusp of the season."
Walker said he expects a rapid increase in flu cases in January because of holiday travel to and from flu-infected areas of the country.
Health officials also recommend that people take precautions such as not touching their eyes, nose or mouth; covering coughs and sneezes with their sleeve or a tissue; washing hands frequently; and staying home when sick.
The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths. The dominant type of flu at that time was the same one seen this year.
One key difference between then and now: In 2003-04, the vaccine was poorly matched to the predominant flu strain. Also, there's more vaccine now, and vaccination rates have risen for the general public and for key groups such as pregnant women and health care workers.
On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches, and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at email@example.com.
Modesto Bee reporter Ken Carlson and Fresno Bee reporter Barbara Anderson contributed to this story.
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos enterprise.com. Modesto Bee reporter Ken Carlson and Fresno Bee reporter Barbara Anderson contributed to this story.