A pharmacist at the Wal-Greens on Wilson Street in Brewer prepares to inject a patient with the flu vaccine. Health experts say it’s not too late for a vaccine to protect against the 2017-2018 flu season. Credit: Brian Swartz

Flu season is building momentum in Maine, with both outpatient medical visits and hospitalizations on the rise. Though numbers are still small, according to the most recent weekly report from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, experts say Mainers should expect more widespread illness as the season progresses.

“It’s still early,” said State Epidemiologist Siiri Bennett. “We generally start seeing an increase about now, and we’ll gradually see more as time goes on.”

“The numbers are tiny right now, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England in Biddeford and Maine’s former top public health official. “They’re just telling you there’s an iceberg there.”

The weekly influenza surveillance report shows that of all Maine counties, Penobscot County has the most flu activity, with 60 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza and 24 hospitalizations. Next are, in order, York, Cumberland and Androscoggin counties. Penobscot County’s higher numbers likely reflect recent outbreaks in two unidentified long-term care facilities. The only other facility outbreak is in a public school in Somerset County, according to the report.

Other explanations for Penobscot’s numbers include the possibility that there are actually more flu cases in the community or that designated health care providers are being especially avid in reporting their cases. Flu reporting is largely voluntary and often inconsistent, Bennett said, so the weekly surveillance reports are “just a snapshot” that, examined over time, reveal seasonal trends.

Experts say there’s still plenty of time to benefit from getting a flu vaccine, which are widely available at medical offices, pharmacies and other sites. The flu vaccine changes each year in anticipation of the strains mostly likely to predominate in the season ahead.

Though the accuracy and effectiveness of each year’s vaccine varies, this year’s seems on track to provide good protection against the Influenza A strains currently predominating, health officials say. It’s a less effective match for the B strains, which so far account for only a small handful of reported lab results in Maine.

“This is the time to get a flu shot,” said Mills. Flu season may be just getting started in New England, she said, but it’s already widespread in other parts of the country, including the southeastern region.

“People from those areas are getting ready to travel for the winter holidays, and they’ll bring flu with them,” Mills said. “Once it’s here, it’ll spread like a brushfire.”

Since it takes about two weeks to become fully effective, a flu shot now will confer protection against illness for the holidays and through the rest of the season, which typically winds down by March or April.

The flu vaccine is recommended for just about everyone 6 months of age and older, but pregnant women, the elderly and people with chronic illness are especially vulnerable to the illness.

Don’t underestimate how sick flu can make you, Mills cautioned. A typical case can last close to a week; serious complications include dehydration and pneumonia.

“It hits you like a freight train,” she said. While some people get flu even after receiving a flu shot, the vaccine frequently lessens the severity and duration of illness.

It is impossible to contract a case of flu from the vaccine.

Vaccine options this year include the standard formulation that protects againsts three strains of the virus; a “quadrivalent” version that protects more broadly; and two different high-dose options for adults 65 and older. The nasal spray vaccine that has been available in recent years is no longer considered effective and is not available.

If you do get flu, keep it to yourself, Mills said. Stay home and rest, away from others. Cover your coughs and sneezes. Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching surfaces that others touch, such as doorknobs and handrails. Drink plenty of fluids.

For the elderly or others who are especially vulnerable, a doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication to help lesson symptoms. In some cases, a health provider will prescribe over the phone and avoid having sick individuals come in to the office with their germs.

“If you’re not excited about getting vaccinated yourself, do it for the people you love,” Mills said.

To find a vaccine site, visit the “Flu” page on the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.