ALBANY, Ga. -- This year's flu season has proven to be particularly aggressive as more people have contracted the virus much earlier in the year than usual, health officials say, and the worst time of the season may not be over yet.
District health officials are urging the public to take advantage of the holiday period to get vaccinated against the flu, particularly the elderly and children.
"The 5- to 24-year-old age group seems to be the one this year with the highest number of cases," Brenda Greene, the deputy director for the Southwest Georgia Health District, said. "The elderly are still the group most likely to end up hospitalized with the flu, but for some reason this year's virus has been especially effective for younger people."
Greene said the vaccination cocktail provided this year to doctors, drug stores and health departments around the country appears to be effective against the virus, preventing 90 percent of known flu cases around the country.
Still, the flu set in much earlier than is typical, Greene says, and has pulled children from schools and adults out of work.
"It intensified much earlier than we're typically used to seeing," she said. "We started seeing a large number of cases at the end of October and the beginning of November."
Flu season typically starts in the south at the end of November, peaks in late January or early February, and is gone by the end of March. However, some flu seasons have been known to stretch from October through May.
Dr. Doug Patten, the senior vice president of Medical Affairs for Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, said that the hospital has seen a spike in early flu cases at its emergency rooms.
"We saw an early flood of people into our emergency rooms, both at the main hospital campus and at Phoebe North," Patten said. "The volume at those two locations increased anywhere between 20 to 40 percent in our daily ER traffic as a result of people coming in with either the flu or flu-like symptoms."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta -- the organization that monitors contagious diseases -- Georgia's number of flu cases, while high, remains lower than the majority of its surrounding states.
Florida, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina all have been given the "widespread" designation in terms of the spread of the flu. Georgia and Tennessee are listed at one level lower with "regional" reports of the flu.
Despite arguments against receiving a flu vaccine, Greene said that it remains the most reliable method of warding off the virus.
"There are things you can do to minimize your risk of catching the virus, but the best thing you can do is get the vaccine," Greene said. "People should call their doctors or local health departments to ensure that they have the vaccine and then make sure that they and their children are vaccinated."
Greene said that accounts of the vaccine not protecting people from the virus likely mean that the people got sick during the two-week window it takes for the body to render the vaccine effective.
Some businesses, including those in the health services field, are taking unprecedented steps to prevent their employees from getting sick or spreading the disease to patients in their care.
Patten said that the leadership at Phoebe decided for the first time to make flu vaccinations mandatory for all employees of the health system.
"We believe that the best way to stop the spread of the virus is to not get sick, and the best way not to get sick is to have the vaccine, so this year we made it mandatory for staff throughout the system to be vaccinated," Patten said.
Employees who had a legitimate objection to taking the vaccine either because of a medical issue or out of religious concerns were allowed to opt out, but by and large, the vast majority of employees were vaccinated, Patten said.
More than 5,000 vaccinations were administered by the hospital to its staff and their spouses, with fewer than 300 of the hospital's staff objecting and opting out.
At Tift Regional Medical Center in Tifton, vaccinations for employees aren't mandatory but are strongly encouraged and provided for free by the hospital.
Stacey Beckham, a spokesperson for Tift General, said that more than 91 percent of all hospital staff have been given the vaccine.
"Our biggest efforts are at getting our staff vaccinated so that we do not infect patients and can safely take care of those who are infected," Beckham said.
Additionally, both hospital systems are taking steps to prevent those who enter their facilities with one ailment from walking out with the flu.
At Phoebe, those people who have flu-like systems and are admitted are kept in isolation so as to not spread the virus to other patients. Facemasks and hand sanitizer also inundate areas throughout the hospital, and Patten said staff in common areas are trained on how to help someone who comes in with respiratory issues that could be flu.
In Tifton, Beckham said that the flu vaccine is offered to just about everyone who walks in the door and that the hospital has created a Flu Crisis -- Standards of Care Committee that tracks developments in the spread of the flu during the flu season, distributes that information to all staff and develops best practices based on information from epidemiologists around the country.
At home, Patten said that people can develop healthy habits that will prevent the spread of the virus and could help prevent them from getting sick.
Regular handwashing and care is the first line of defense, Patten said.
"People should wash their hands regularly with warm water and soap, and between handwashings we advise people to use hand sanitizer," he said. "Door knobs and handles, especially in public places, can be harbingers of disease, so we advise people to use a paper towel to grab the handle when they're leaving the bathroom, for example, to cut down on the chances they may pick something up."
Beckham said that good coughing etiquette, such as coughing or sneezing into the bend of an arm rather than into the air or the hands can prevent the spread of the disease. Beckham also said the hospital advises visitors to stay home if they are sick and avoid coming to the hospital where they may spread the disease.
Ironically, a hospital emergency room is a likely place where the flu virus and other contagious diseases can be spread just because of the nature of the space, Patten said.
That's why Phoebe advises most people with the flu simply to stay at home -- away from work, school and even the hospital -- through the duration of their sickness, unless they face a dire situation.
"For most people, the flu is a miserable experience, but staying home, hydrating and getting as comfortable as possible is the best medicine and can prevent the spread of the virus to others," Patten said. "That's not to say that if someone is three days into it and they're not able to keep liquids down or are having trouble breathing they shouldn't come to the emergency room."