CAPITAL REGION -- It's not too late to get a flu shot, but flu season is here.
Following a 2017-18 flu season that was severe, both statewide and nationally, federal and state officials say influenza cases so far this season are low, but they are expected to pick up in coming weeks.
The federal Centers for Disease Control estimated last year's flu caused 79,000 deaths -- more than twice the historic average. The CDC estimated 49 million Americans caught the flu last season, and 960,000 had to be hospitalized. People of all ages were hospitalized last season; typically, hospitalization is mostly for very young and very old patients.
It was, according to the CDC, the worst flu season since 2009, when the H1N1 flue strain caused what is now considered a pandemic, with 60 million illnesses.
New York officials say last winter saw 23,377 flu-related hospitalizations, and six pediatric deaths statewide. In January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order allowing pharmacists to administer vaccines to children ages 2 to 18, a measure that has since become law.
The Health Department said the number of flu-related hospitalizations recorded last winter was the highest on record, though spokeswoman Jill Montag also noted reporting systems have evolved over time, making comparisons difficult.
Flu season typically starts in October and peaks in February or March.
"Getting a flu vaccine is the best way to stay healthy during flu season, and it’s not too late to get vaccinated," Montag said.
New York state still considers flu cases to be "sporadic" so far this season, but the number is rising, with 105 lab-confirmed cases reported to the state Health Department for the week that ended Oct. 27, according to a weekly report issued Thursday. Over four weeks of tracking, the number has risen each week.
The number of cases statewide is about the same as a year ago at this time. State figures only count lab-confirmed cases.
This year, while Schenectady County has yet to see its first case, Montgomery, Fulton, Saratoga and Albany counties all saw confirmed cases over the last week or so.
"We're just starting to see some sporadic cases," said Dr. JoAnne McDonough, medical director of Malta Med, an urgent care center operated by Saratoga Hospital in Malta. "At the beginning of the year, we always try to be prepared; we never know how bad it's going to be."
She said Saratoga Hospital prefers people with flu symptoms go to an urgent care center rather than an emergency room so the ER can handle more serious cases.
Montgomery County Public Health Director Sara A. Borenko said she didn't have any hard numbers on flu cases in that county, but she urged people to take preventive measures.
"I can tell you that, with any disease or virus prevention, hand washing is the number one precaution people can take to prevent and keep themselves and others safe from any illness, especially the flu," she said. "Other things: Cover your mouth with a tissue when you cough or your nose when you sneeze. Stay home if you are sick. See your primary doctor if you are not feeling well. Get a flu shot. Drink plenty of water. Get plenty of sleep. Avoid alcohol if you are not feeling well."
Montag said the severity of the coming flu seasons cannot be predicted and the state is unaware of vaccine shortages going into this season.
The flu can cause severe illness, with symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, chills and fatigue.