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Boston health officials warn of early and severe flu season

The Boston Public Health Commission noted a rapid increase in children sick enough to be hospitalized.

A 3rd grader gets her COVID-19 booster shot at a vaccination clinic where flu shots were also offered.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

More than 700 cases of influenza have been reported throughout Boston in the last week, prompting the Boston Public Health Commission to urge residents to get their flu shots, wear masks indoors, and stay home and call their doctor if sick.

The city has seen 1,784 influenza cases since Oct. 1, in what is shaping up to be an unusually early, fast-moving and severe flu season. The commission noted a rapid increase in children sick enough to be hospitalized.

The city’s experience mirrors statewide trends. Hospitalizations for influenza-like illnesses were about five times higher in the end of November than at the same time last year.

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Flu is hitting hard and early throughout the nation. In a press briefing Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said hospitalizations for flu are the highest seen at this time of year in a decade. Flu-like illnesses are high or very high in 47 jurisdictions, up from 36 last week, she said. Since Oct. 1, according to CDC estimates, there have been at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from flu.

That includes 14 deaths among children.

Even so, Walensky said, vaccination rates are lower than normal, and she urged people to get their shots.

Flu season typically runs from October to May, peaking in December through February, so it is unusual to see so much flu at this time. It comes as children’s hospitals are already overwhelmed with an influx of kids seriously ill with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, another common virus that arrived early with unusual severity, and as COVID-19 continues to spread.

In Boston, the highest proportion of reported flu cases — 59 percent — occurred among children and adolescents younger than 18 years old. Higher rates are also being seen among Black and Latino residents, the commission said. The neighborhoods with the highest case rates are Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Jamaica Plain, and South End.

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“With flu spreading throughout Boston at such a high rate, there’s an urgent need for more residents to get vaccinated to protect themselves and help avoid an even greater influx of cases and hospitalizations during and after the holidays,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, commissioner of public health and executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission in a statement. “I urge everyone to be safe this holiday season. Stay home if you’re sick and call your doctor to ask about treatments for flu and COVID-19, in addition to staying up to date on vaccinations, wear a mask indoors to reduce your risk of illness.”

Flu shots are recommended for everyone older than 6 months. In Boston they are free and available at these walk-in sites, no insurance or identification needed:

--Bruce C. Bolling Building, 2302 Washington St., Roxbury. Tuesdays through Saturdays noon to 8 p.m.

--Lena Park Development Corporation,150 American Legion Highway, Dorchester. Sundays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Mondays and Fridays 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Wednesdays noon to 7 p.m.

--Josephine A. Fiorentino Community Center, 123 Antwerp St., Allston. Sundays noon to 4 p.m.; Monday to Wednesday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Thursdays 5 to 9 p.m.

--BCYF Hyde Park, 1179 River St., Hyde Park. Tuesdays noon to 8 p.m.; and Thursdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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People at higher risk of serious flu complications — such as those 65 years old and older, children younger than 2, pregnant people, and those with medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease —should contact their doctor to obtain antiviral treatments, which can prevent the illness progressing to hospitalization, the commission urged.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills, and fatigue. City health officials recommend getting rest and drinking water and other clear liquids to prevent dehydration. The commission also encourages individuals to wear high-quality, well-fitting masks to prevent the spread of the flu and other respiratory illnesses.

For additional information about flu or support getting a healthcare provider, Boston residents can call the Mayor’s Health Line at 617-534-5050.