The CDC recommends vaccination for anyone 6 months or older. Several versions of the vaccine are available, including a new vaccine that protects against four flu strains. Traditional vaccines guard against three strains.
For the uninsured, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department is offering influenza shots free of charge to people ages 19-64.
No appointment is necessary. Learn more at health.hamiltontn.org/.
LOCAL FLU COUNTS
Flu-like illnesses reported at local hospitals, and deaths resulting from flu-related complications.
Erlanger Health System -- 438 cases since mid-October, 5 deaths
Memorial Health Care System -- 395 cases since September, 3 deaths
Parkridge Health System -- 532 cases since November, 4 deaths
SkyRidge Medical Center, Cleveland, Tenn. -- 250 cases since December, 1 death
Grandview Medical Center, Jasper, Tenn. -- 58 cases
Hamilton Medical Center, Dalton, Ga. -- 211 cases, 1 death
Source: Area hospitals
At least 14 people in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia have died from flu-related complications this season, as health officials are reporting an increased severity in the virus.
The numbers, compiled from local hospitals' reports, show just how heavy the virus' toll has been. This year's flu season has seen the hospitalization of far more healthy, middle-aged people than usual.
"The really sick folks have been in the middle-aged, 20 to 40 range," said Dale Solomon, emergency department manager at Parkridge East Hospital in Chattanooga, which has seen 309 diagnoses since November.
"Usually you're more concerned with the younger and older population. That is what is odd about it this year. Normal, healthy adults, who usually aren't compromised by the flu, are requiring hospitalization."
Health officials say a resurgence of the influenza strain H1N1 -- which afflicts more young adults and middle-aged people than more common strains -- is a factor in this year's busy emergency rooms.
"Statistically, it's not as high a count of flu cases as we saw last year. But the severity has been higher this year," said Margaret Zylstra, epidemiology manager for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
Hospital and health department numbers across the region say flu cases began trending downward at the end of January, but Zylstra said it is hard to predict whether the worst of the danger period is past.
She still urges people to get vaccinated against the flu, as the season can run as late as April or May.
Neither the state nor the county tracks official numbers of flu deaths, except for children or pregnant women. No local fatalities have been reported in either category. But at least 12 people have died at Hamilton County hospitals of flu-related complications.
"Our number of flu cases has definitely been above average this year," said Dr. Paul Hendricks, an emergency room physician at Memorial Health Care System. "It's affecting all ages, and a lot of your so-called 'young invincibles' -- healthy 20- and 30-year-olds."
The virus, commonly dismissed as a standard part of winter, does demand respect and attention as it can turn lethal, Hendricks said.
In most fatal cases, the virus leads to pneumonia, or complications create sepsis that can damage organs, he said.
Most recent reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Tennessee is experiencing "widespread" flu activity, while Georgia and Alabama are experiencing "regional" flu activity.
Flu statistics released by Vanderbilt Medical Center show that 19 people have died of flu complications this season in eight Middle Tennessee counties, compared with 11 last year and 14 in 2009, during the H1N1 outbreak.
One pediatric death has been confirmed this year, in Monroe County.
In Georgia, 37 flu-related deaths have been reported.
One death has been reported at Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, Ga., spokesman Daryl Cole said.
It has not been confirmed whether the person who died in that case is one of the two middle-aged flu deaths in the North Georgia health district this season. The district does not release specific locations of deaths.
Dr. Tye Young, a physician at UT Erlanger East Primary Care, said he is seeing fewer flu patients since the holiday season ended. But he is still encouraging preventive measures, including the vaccine.
"Wash your hands," he stressed. "Use hand sanitizer liberally. Even avoid crowds of people, since that is how it is most commonly spread. Do all those things we take for granted: Exercise, good nutrition, hydrate. Have a healthy body that is tuned up and ready to fight."
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.