FLU season swept into Illinois and Missouri just before the cold weather settled in the week before Christmas, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports that 36 states have reported widespread flu outbreaks.
There were 7,249 positive lab tests for this flu season in Illinois, while Missouri reported 8,458 cases in the week that ended Dec. 23 -- or more than seven times as many as during the same week in 2016, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Melanie Arnold of the Illinois Department of Public Health said the state only tracks flu cases that involve hospitalizations or deaths. It stands to reason that the number of people with the flu far exceeds what those lab tests would indicate because many people with symptoms don't go to hospitals or physicians to get tested.
In reaction, Blessing Hospital was among several health care facilities to put restrictions on visitors based on age or the presence of flu symptoms. Those visiting restrictions will remain in place this month.
Jennifer Radtke, infection prevention manager at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, told the Associated Press this flu season may be worse than usual because this year's vaccine offers limited protection from the strain that is most prevalent.
"It's anywhere from 10 to 33 percent effective, so any time there's a mismatch between the vaccine and the circulating strain of the flu, you're going to see more cases," Radtke said.
While no vaccine is fully effective, vaccines usually reduce risks of the flu by 40 to 60 percent. Even in years where the vaccine is less effective, vaccinations help by reducing the severity of illness in many cases.
Flu symptoms include fever, sore throat, nasal congestion or a runny nose, cough, muscle aches, headache, vomiting and diarrhea. Epidemiologists recommend that everyone wash their hands frequently, cover coughs and either stay home or seek treatment if symptoms develop.
Doctors have one other bit of wisdom to share: Flu season usually doesn't peak until February.