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Flu outbreak hitting Mass. early and hard

The dreaded annual tide of fever, sore throat, sniffles, and body aches is washing over Massachusetts unusually early this year and with uncharacteristic force.

State health officials said Friday that the number of people sick with the flu, or flulike symptoms, has drastically ­increased the past several weeks, and the level of illness has already surpassed the peaks of the last two flu seasons.

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Many other states are also reporting early and heavy flu counts, including flu-related deaths, such as North Carolina, which has listed 14 deaths so far.

In Massachusetts, a spike in the flu usually does not happen for another month, at least.

“Flu typically peaks around early February,” said Dr. ­Alfred ­DeMaria, an infectious disease specialist at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “Back in 2003, we had an early flu season, and that was the last one that started before the holidays.”

From Boston to the Berkshires, the state’s data show that patients descended on doctors’ offices and community health centers last week in numbers that were easily 10 times what they were during the same period last year, which was a relatively mild season.

All told, 3,736 patients have laboratory-confirmed cases of the flu so far this season, compared to just 126 at this time last year, state numbers show. And that is probably a small fraction of the number who are truly ill, because most people do not get a lab test to confirm their misery. Massachusetts has had no flu-related deaths so far this season.

‘I went right after that appoint­ment to get my flu shot. I had been procrastinating.’

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Central Massachusetts has been hit hardest, with 784 confirmed flu cases this season, compared to just three at this point last year, the numbers show.

The western part of the state has seen the fewest cases, with 160, compared to 17 at this point last year.

Count Annadora Springer in Arlington among the feverish, flu-confirmed masses. The 7-year-old had a hacking cough right before Christmas but did not seem seriously ill, her mother said, until she started running a fever Thursday night. Coincidentally, Annadora was scheduled to get a flu shot Friday, but doctors determined she already had the flu when she came in for her appointment.

Her 12-year-old sister, ­Lauren, who was feeling fine, received her vaccination Friday, and their mother is crossing her fingers because it usually takes a week or two for the vaccine to be fully effective.

“I went right after that appoint­ment to get my flu shot,” said Carole Springer, who is battling a cold. “I had been procrastinating.”

Springer is anxious about her younger daughter, who also has asthma, because flu can be more serious in those with ­respiratory and other chronic health problems.

As the Springer family was leaving the doctor’s office Friday at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Somerville, they noticed other ­patients in the waiting area who were wearing masks, a sign they were not alone. Health officials typically ask those suffering from flulike symptoms to don masks to help curb the virus’s spread to other patients.

Dr. Benjamin Kruskal, chief of infectious disease at Harvard Vanguard, said the medical network has already treated more patients for flu symptoms this year than it had at its peak last February. The network tends to about 400,000 patients in Massachusetts.

“Either we are having a very early flu season, or a severe season, or maybe both,” Kruskal said. “I think it’s going to be both bad and long.”

Hospital emergency department directors said they, too, are seeing unusually large numbers of patients with flu symptoms, but the onslaught has not forced them to close their emergency rooms or restrict visitors to their hospitals.

“We are bracing ourselves for a long season, but it’s difficult to know,” said Dr. Jason Tracy, chief of emergency medicine at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, the state’s third-largest emergency department in sheer volume.

While health specialists monitor flu trends to design a vaccine each year that will be effective in combating the ever-changing virus, they are unable to predict the severity or length of any one flu season.

Health officials do say that this year’s vaccine seems to be a good match for the virus that is circulating, meaning it probably will offer good protection against being infected.

“It’s not too late to get a shot,” said DeMaria, the state’s top disease tracker. “People can do a lot of things to protect themselves. Frequent hand washing, not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with potentially contaminated hands, and staying home if they’re sick to prevent further transmission.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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