St. Petersburg, Florida - Florida is one of 41 states seeing an outbreak of the flu earlier than usual. The Center for Disease Control says this flu season is of epidemic proportions. So far, 18 children nationwide have died from the flu.
The Mayo Clinic says this is the worst flu season in more than 30 years. This year's virus is the H3N2 strain. Officials with the Mayo Clinic say the number of flu-related deaths may double this year from 36,000 on average each year to as high as 70,000 cases.
As fast as sales clerks at the Walgreens store on 38th Ave North and 4th Street stock the shelves, customers are buying items such as congestion medication, daytime medication, and nasal sprays to treat the common or cold or a case of the flu... and the height of the flu season is still five weeks away. Hand sanitizers are also selling fast.
Lisa Wuerth never believed in getting the flu shot. Lisa says, "I wouldn't go near it. Thought it would give me the flu and make me sick. I never got the flu shot... never."
That's until Lisa says she spent eight days in the hospital over the Christmas holiday with pneumonia, possibly brought on by the flu. "It was bad, it was bad, scary," says Lisa.
Doctors gave Lisa her first flu shot at 47 years old. Now, she says, "I will get it every year."
Lisa is not alone. Many people won't get a flu shot, despite warnings they can die from the flu.
Devyn Weckesser, 18, says, "I'm terrified of needles."
Jack Alonso, 49, says, "I think if you eat healthy enough, your immune system is OK. I don't believe in the flu shot, really."
"It does offer a measure of protection from the flu. It reduces the severity and duration of the illness," says Andrea Castillo, epidemiologist with the Pinellas County Health Department.
Castillo says the H3N2 influenza virus has the Tampa Bay area seeing one of its worst flu seasons in years. She says instead of peaking in February and March, cases started spiking in December.
Castillo says, "[Normally] in December we see six to 10 confirmed cases. In Pinellas County, we've seen 30 reported each week since December."
While hand sanitizers and hand wipes do help, doctors say nothing replaces good old fashioned hand washing. First use antibacterial soap and then use soapy water. Wash your hands for about 20 seconds, cleaning around your nails, underneath your nails and in between your fingers. Dry your hands with paper towels.
Heather Circle says, "I've gotten the flu shot every year, and never had the flu or cold. I believe in it, I make sure my mother gets it too."
Cliff Fischer says he will be getting the flu shot this season. "To protect myself and my family, probably get it just in case for 5 or 10 dollars... what it costs is not worth the gamble not to get it."
According to the Center for Disease Control, as of last month 60% of Americans have not had their flu shot. But there's still time to get one. Walgreens pharmacies are still offering flu shots and they are seeing a steady flow of patients every day.
Doctors say it takes two weeks for your body to build up immunity to the virus. Health officials say the peak of the flu season in the Tampa Bay area is not until next month and into March, leaving one with time to get a flu shot for added protection.