By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY -- The number of influenza cases rose about 20 percent higher than expected in Martin County last month, but remained at "moderate" levels, public health officials said.
Officials would not release actual counts, saying to do so would be counterproductive and that the health department preferred to focus on a message aimed at preventing new cases.
Most of those affected were seniors or infants, according to data from the Martin County Health Department, which showed 41 percent of cases in December involved patients age 4 or younger and about 20 percent were 65 or older.
The news came as flu cases spiked around the country, hitting Massachusetts especially hard. By press time, 18 people died from the flu in that state and Boston declared a state of emergency.
But locally, health department officials said they've downgraded flu activity in the county from "moderate" to "mild."
Epidemiologist Karen Thomas said an early peak in flu season caused the spike in last month's cases.
The season typically has its first peak in January or February, and a second in March.
But this season, the rise in cases came in December, with emergency rooms reporting an increase in patients with coughs, sore throats, body aches, fever and other symptoms.
Emergency rooms are one of six "systems" the health department monitors for signs of an uptake in communicable diseases. The other five systems, which include schools and private medical practices, have reported counts consistent with this time of year, Dr. Thomas said.
"Five of the systems are showing low levels," she said. "There is nothing that's tripping our baselines, except the emergency rooms."
Meanwhile, officials said the number of flu cases continues to rise throughout the state and country and urged residents to get vaccinated and take precautions against contracting the virus. They said the local vaccine supply was robust.
"At this time, flu is at mild levels in Martin County, but we can expect that will increase in the coming weeks," Dr. Thomas said. "It's best to prepare now."
Health Department spokeswoman Renay Rouse said even small steps, such as washing hands often with soap and water and staying home if sick, will help prevent the flu's spread.
For more information, visit www.MartinCountyHealth.com.