Have you gotten your flu shot yet? For those who haven't, there's still time.
The annual influenza outbreak arrived four weeks earlier than normal and has state Department of Health (DPH) officials and the Centers for Disease Control urging anyone who hasn't been vaccinated to do so now.
"The last severe outbreak, not including the 2009 pandemic, that we saw was 2007-2008," Dr. Alfred DeMaria, medical director of the state DPH infectious disease bureau and the state's epidemiologist. "It looks like we're going to exceed those numbers. It looks like we not only have an early season, but that it also will be a bad flu season."
As of Friday, there were 6,026 lab-confirmed flu cases across the state, with 313 coming from Western Massachusetts. At this time last year, the state had a total of 156 lab-confirmed cases statewide, with 17 coming from Western Massachusetts.
DeMaria said that while those numbers are high, they only include a small portion of the population. Those individuals, who are being seen by physicians and in emergency rooms, are being tested and treated.
"About 90 percent of the population doesn't go to the doctor -- they stay home," he said. "We've seen an increase [in the number of confirmed case] over the last two to three weeks and expect to continue to see it increase over the next three to four weeks. We're seeing it across all age groups. It's wide-spread."
The Centers for Disease Control urged individuals to get the flu shot in a Friday press release.
"While we can't say for certain how severe this season will be, we can say that a lot of people are getting sick with influenza, that we are getting reports of severe illness and hospitalizations," said Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch of the CDC's influenza division, in a statement Friday.
North Adams Regional Hospital officials said Thursday that there have been 25 lab-confirmed cases of the flu in December and seven more in the last week. Those figures do not include lab-confirmed cases from Williamstown Medical Associates or Northern Berkshire Pediatrics.
"It's quite a bit more than we had at this time last year, which was a total of eight," Michael Raczynski, infection preventionist, said. "Last year, we had a mild and very late flu season. In talking with the state DPH, we know that the flu season is ‘full-blown' in Massachusetts, New York and Vermont."
Berkshire Medical Center spokesman Michael Leary said Friday that the Pittsfield hospital has recorded 57 lab-confirmed cases and that nine patients with the flu had been admitted.
"According to our Infection Control Department, while the flu season did start earlier than normal, we would describe our numbers as moderate at this point," he said.
Karen Bednarz, a registered nurse and clinical supervisor at the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice of Northern Berkshire, said that there is plenty of vaccine available in Berkshire County, but attendance at the VNA's flu shot clinics has been low for the last few years.
"We're sure a lot of people are getting them from their primary care physicians," she said. "We also know that people are getting the flu shot at local pharmacies and grocery stores. Sometimes there's a fee associated with places like that. We ask for a donation, but we never charge anyone."
According to DeMaria, the groups that are the most at-risk of contracting the flu are people over the age of 65, infants and individuals with chronic conditions such as congestive heart failure, asthma and diabetes.
"We really worry about individuals with underlying conditions because they have a devastating vulnerability to the complications caused by the flu," he said.
DeMaria declined to say if there have been any flu-related deaths in the state.
"People die from the complications caused by the flu -- pneumonia or heart attack," he said. "We do know that [during flu season] the increases in these types of deaths are consistent with the increase in the number of lab-confirmed cases of influenza."
For more information about the flu and flu prevention, visit http://www.mass .gov/flu/.
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email