FLORIDA KEYS -- Monroe County officials expect this flu season to be worse than previous years and are urging residents to get a flu shot.
"People are getting complacent after a couple of quiet seasons," said Dr. Mark Whiteside, medical director of the Monroe County Health Department.
Whiteside said parts of northern and central Florida have already been hit by seasonal influenza, and the Florida Keys could soon follow.
While the state doesn't track flu patients, it does keep an ongoing tally of those described with influenza-like illness. Numbers for these patients are up from last year.
Much national attention has been given to the flu this year after an early start in some southern states, including Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which issued an advisory last week. CDC officials have identified a couple of pediatric deaths this year as flu-related.
According to the most recent data from the Florida Department of Health, Monroe County's flu activity is described as minimal but is expected to increase with other counties statewide as the season progresses. Florida's first pediatric death from the flu occurred this fall in Wakulla County, the data says.
Whiteside said this year's strain of influenza is beginning to resemble the 2003 strain that took many lives. Since then, he said many advances have been made to the vaccination and he encourages everyone to get the shot, especially children, the elderly and women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy.
The Visiting Nurse Association in Tavernier as of last week had provided 50 flu vaccinations. The group administers the vaccine on Fridays at its office at mile marker 92.
"People have been more vigilant since the H1N1," Paige Rice, a registered nurse at the association, said, referring to the 2009 swine flu outbreak.
Rice said one of the problems she encounters is that people think getting the vaccine, which contains a killed virus, can make you susceptible to colds or other illnesses.
"The flu shot will not make you sick," she said.
But even so, many people can't be persuaded otherwise and refuse to get the shot.
"Some wives come in and get the shot, but their husbands refuse and it goes the other way," she said. "They have strange reasons."
Rice said many local businesses invite the association to their offices to administer vaccinations to their employees. In addition to most doctors' offices, the flu shot is also available at most local pharmacies.