When flu season officially began on Monday, there were already several confirmed cases in the region.
There was one confirmed flu at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center's emergency department and "several" flu cases at iCare Johnstown, 100 Susan Drive, Southmont.
Conemaugh spokeswoman Emily Korns noted it's early to see the influenza virus.
"That is unusual for September," Korns said. "It is early to even test for flu."
October is an ideal time to get a flu shot to reduce chances of coming down with the nasty bug, Dr. Matt Zajdel said at the iCare Johnstown office just off Menoher Blvd.
"The CDC put an announcement out to get a flu shot by the end of October," Zajdel said.
Although experts stress that the flu season is unpredictable, the CDC bases its advisories on how the flu season hit in Australia, Zajdel said. In the Southern Hemisphere, spring is just arriving and flu season is winding down. News Corp. Australia reported that nation's flu season began early and has been one of the most severe on record.
The iCare patients who tested positive for the flu had not received vaccines, Zajdel noted.
"Now is really a good time to get immunized," said Dr. Jeanne Spencer, family medicine residency program director and family medicine department chairwoman at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center.
"You want to get immunized before the flu is in the community," she said.
Who needs the shot?
Influenza is an upper respiratory viral infection. Hallmark symptoms include fever, body aches and feeling run down, along with a cough and sniffles, Zajdel said.
For otherwise-healthy adults, a flu shot may help them avoid feeling miserable and missing work or important events due to illness. But for the very young, very old and those with other illnesses, the flu shot can be life-saving, Zajdel said.
He pointed to a 2017 study that showed overall mortality rates were lower for children who had flu shots.
"The chance of death goes down dramatically if they get the flu shots," he said.
Flu shots are not advised for babies under 6 month of age, so it's important for parents to be vaccinated. Pregnant women can give their newborns some degree of protection by getting flu shots.
Anyone who has close contact with the very young, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems should consider getting a shot, he said.
"Getting the vaccine is not only good for your own health, but the health of everybody around," Zajdel said.
"You may be around a loved one who has some kind of chronic illness," Spencer said. "You wouldn't want to bring it home to them."
The three Cs
Flu shots are available at area pharmacies, primary-care physician offices, urgent-care centers and through some workplaces.
With or without the vaccine, there are ways to reduce your chances of contacting the virus, Health Department spokeswoman Brittany Lauffer said.
"We recommend the three Cs: Cover, clean and contain," Lauffer said.
Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or shirtsleeve can help contain water droplets that contain the virus. Hand washing and disinfecting surfaces such as door handles can prevent virus spread by contact. Those who become ill can help protect others by containing the flu: Staying home from school or work and avoiding contact with others, she explained.
Spencer stressed that getting a flu shot cannot give anyone the influenza virus.
"There is no live virus in it," she said. "You really can't get the flu from it."
Even if the vaccine is not a perfect match to the strain of virus hitting the region, a flu shot can reduce the risk, Zajdel said, citing a study that showed reduced flu rates in areas where more people were vaccinated – even during years the vaccine was not a match.
Antiviral medicine can help shorten the duration of symptoms if taken soon after symptoms appear, Zajdel said.
There is even a new antiviral medicine that only requires one dose, instead of three.
The antiviral can help protect others, too, he said.
"It lowers your infectious capacity of the flu," he said.