David Robinson and Katelyn Cordero, New York State Team


New York's flu season is off to its worst start in a decade, and authorities are urging people to get inoculated against the rapidly spreading virus.


A whopping 74% spike in flu cases hit when friends and family gathered for the holidays, accounting for about 9,200 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza reported to the state Department of Health for the week ending Dec. 28.


That brought the statewide total to nearly 22,800 cases for this season.


New York's fast start comes after public-health officials this fall warned of a potentially bad flu season this year after an outbreak in Australia, which is typically a predictor of similar trouble in the U.S.


So far, there have been an estimated 6.4 million flu illnesses across the country, 55,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths from flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.


Most patients are infected with a strain called B/Victoria that usually doesn't appear until the end of flu season. The virus tends to strike children and young adults more often, but anyone can be affected, according to the CDC.


In New York, the number of weekly hospitalizations also increased in late December, with 1,387 New Yorkers hospitalized for lab-confirmed influenza, up 119% from the prior week.


So far this season in New York, 3,592 flu-related hospitalizations and one flu-associated pediatric death have been reported.


"As the flu season is off to a quick start across the state, I am urging New Yorkers to take steps to protect themselves and their families; it's not too late to get a flu shot," Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said Friday in a statement.


"The flu shot remains the best way to protect against the spread of the flu and is particularly important for the most vulnerable to influenza, such as the elderly and very young," he added.


A fast start doesn't guarantee it's going to be a bad flu season overall.


Prior to this season, only the 2012-13 flu season saw more than 8,600 confirmed cases in New York before Dec. 31, but it ended with 45,352 total, which is far below some of the worst seasons.


Yet early red flags have public health officials nationally bracing for a repeat of two years ago, when 79,000 Americans died of causes related to the flu in the worst such spell this decade.


That 2017-18 season saw 23,300 flu-related hospitalizations in New York, which contributed to a record-breaking hospitalization rate across the country of about 107 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents.


How effective is the flu shot?


It depends on the year, because the virus is constantly mutating.


Sometimes the strain combination selected for the vaccine matches the virus expected to be in circulation, other times not so much.


The CDC acknowledges that in years when the vaccine is not a good match, recipients of the shots may get little benefit.


A Mayo Clinic review of past studies says the average effectiveness for adults younger than 65 has been 50-60%.


Why get a flu shot?


While the effectiveness can vary from year to year, studies show that the vaccine remains the most effective way to protect public health, health officials said.


Additionally, studies show that the influenza vaccine can make the illness milder in certain cases where an individual was vaccinated but still contracted influenza.


Even during the rough 2017-18 season, the CDC estimates flu vaccines prevented more than 7 million cases of the illness, 3.7 million visits to the doctor, 109,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths.


Who should get a flu shot?


Everyone six months of age or older should receive an influenza vaccination, state health officials said.


The vaccine is especially important for people at high risk for complications from influenza, including children under age 2, pregnant women and adults over age 65.


People with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma and heart disease, are also at greater risk, as are individuals with weakened immune systems due to disease or medications such as chemotherapy or chronic steroid use.


Since influenza virus can spread easily by coughing or sneezing, it is also important that family members and people in regular contact with high risk individuals get an influenza vaccine.


How many flu cases in New York communities?


Some of the highest totals so far this season outside New York City and Long Island, through Dec. 28, included:


Westchester County (1,084 cases)


Monroe County (707)


Chemung County (48)


Steuben County (47)


Schuyler County (6)


Dutchess County this season has seen 119 confirmed cases of influenza, according to Dr. A.K. Vaidian, commissioner of the county Department of Behavioral and Community Health.


There are indications that “we may be in the throes of a bad flu season,” he said.


“In a typical flu season, you will see a spike from January into February,” Vaidian said. “We are seeing many cases that started in November.”


Influenza activity data for each county in New York is available on the New York State Flu Tracker online, which can be found through the Health Department website, www.health.ny.gov.


How to get a flu shot


The vaccine is available at drug stores throughout the country – often free with insurance plans – at medical offices and clinics, supermarkets with pharmacies and even at retail stores like Costco.


The CDC said more than 155 million doses of the vaccine had been distributed by early November.


Here’s a locator for flu shot providers: www.vaccinefinder.org.