Influenza has claimed its first victims in Northwest Georgia, and health officials are urging residents young, old and in between all over the Southeast to get vaccinated.
On Monday, the Georgia Department of Public Health said two middle-age people in its North Georgia health district apparently died of flu-related illness. The North Georgia district includes Cherokee, Fannin, Gilmer, Murray, Pickens and Whitfield counties.
Health district spokeswoman Jennifer King declined to say in what county or counties the deaths occurred. She also declined to give specific ages of the victims.
The fatalities were the first reported flu deaths in the district, but they brought Georgia's total flu-related death count this season to 20, according to Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the state's health department.
And Nydam said this flu strain is different from others. It's not only a concern for children and the elderly, typically the most at-risk groups for the flu.
Of the 20 dead in Georgia, one was a child. The other 19 were people between the ages of 18 and 65.
"It's really an atypical year because we usually see the young and the very old [hospitalized with the flu]. But this year, it has really affected the middle-aged," Nydam said.
That's because the predominate strain going around is H1N1, or swine flu. The strain is less picky than other flu strains, which typically only afflict children and adults with weakened immune systems. It is the same virus that swept the globe in 2009.
Current vaccines can prevent H1N1, but the flu is still spreading rapidly across the nation. On Dec. 30, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 10 states were experiencing widespread flu activity. By Monday, more than half the states in the nation were listed on the widespread activity list -- including Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama.
Tennessee is listed as having regional flu activity -- but officials say that likely will change.
"We know flu activity is now being reported across the state, and Tennessee typically sees the highest numbers of flu cases in January and February. We urge anyone who has not yet had a flu vaccine to get one as soon as possible to be protected throughout the rest of the flu season," said Shelley Walker, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health.
The virulence of the recent flu has spurred the Tennessee health department to give out flu vaccines at no cost.
State-run county health departments in Tennessee are offering vaccines for free, and some local departments are following suit, Walker said.
Abena Williams, spokeswoman for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, said residents between 19 and 64 who are not insured can receive a flu shot free of charge at any of the county's four health clinics.
Tennessee only reports flu deaths in children and pregnant women. And the CDC only tracks child deaths, so figures for other flu-related deaths were not available Monday.
However, according to the CDC, the 2013 flu season claimed 171 children nationwide; 35 died in the 2012 season; and 123 perished in the 2011 season.
Locally, area hospitals have seen their fair share of flu.
Grandview Medical Center in Jasper, Tenn., has confirmed 51 cases since Nov. 1, according to hospital spokesman Jamie Lawson.
"That's a little bit higher than normal for us. That's 18 percent of all who tested were confirmed," Lawson said.
Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, Ga., has confirmed 181 cases since Oct. 1. That's down since last year, when the hospital had 280 in the same time period, according to hospital spokesman Daryl Cole.
Since October, Parkridge Medical Center in Chattanooga has diagnosed 195 cases at its main campus and 78 at its Parkridge East Hospital, according to spokeswoman Alison Counts.
Memorial Health Care System spokesman Joshua Bell said the hospital has confirmed 280 cases of flu at its Hixson and Glenwood facilities. And 62 of those have occurred in the past two weeks, Bell said.
Since December, Erlanger Health System has confirmed 230 influenza-related illnesses, spokeswoman Pat Charles said.
Skyridge Medical Center in Cleveland, Tenn., did not immediately have flu figures, but spokeswoman Stephanie Austin said the hospital is urging all its patients to get vaccinated.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon @timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.