Flu seasons are unpredictable. State health officials are getting ready for whatever comes their way this year.

The severity, timing and length of the season changes from year to year, Department of Health and Social Services spokeswoman Emily Knearl said.

“We don’t do forecasts,” Knearl said. “What we try to do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best. What we tell people to do is to focus on prevention, and that means getting a vaccination,” she said.

Last year, there were 2,387 confirmed cases of the flu in Delaware, the most on record in the past decade.

The state already has its first confirmed case for the 2015/2016 season. A 26-year-old New Castle County man was diagnosed early in October. He was not hospitalized, and he had not been vaccinated.

Scientists have been working on a new flu vaccine to replace last year’s offering, which proved less effective than planned.

“The Centers for Disease Control has said this flu vaccine offers broader coverage,” Knearl said.

“What happened last year was a perfect storm in that [the virus] had a last-minute mutation and the strain was the most common kind that hits the elderly hardest and those people with pre-existing medical conditions.”

By the time last year’s virus had metamorphosed, it was too late to change the vaccine, she said.

As for this year, it’s too early in this flu season to determine just how effective the new batch will be, Knearl said.

Even if vaccinations don’t completely prevent some people from coming down with a case of influenza, having received the vaccine generally lessens the severity and the length of the illness, she said.

“It’s all about protecting people and making the disease less serious,” Knearl said.

Last year’s Delaware flu statistics

2,387 – confirmed cases in the state

621 – cases requiring hospitalization

28 – flu-related deaths

Source: Delaware Division of Public Health

Free vaccinations available

As in past years, the state Division of Public Health is offering free flu vaccines throughout the state.

The vaccination clinics run through Nov. 18, depending on the locale, and will serve as training for public health staff if a large-scale health emergency arises.

Other organizations, such as the House of Pride in Dover, also will be offering vaccinations. Executive Director Apostle Marion Lott said they have partnered with Walgreens pharmacies to provide the vaccine.

“We have a major concern about people’s health,” Lott said. “We know there are lots of people in this community who don’t have insurance and who need a flu shot.”

Walgreens pharmacy staff inoculated House of Pride employees, including property manager Mary-Beth Johnson. As a member of the U.S. Air Force, Johnson always was required to have a flu shot while on active duty and has continued that practice since her retirement.

“Shots can be painful, but they’re worth it,” Johnson said. “I’m happy that Walgreens is willing to come here and do this.”

Walgreens and the House of Pride will continue the program for community residents on Monday, Nov. 11, Lott said.

People in the area around New, Kirkwood and Queen streets who don’t have their own transportation will be able to walk to the clinic, and shots will be free for those without health coverage, he said.

Walgreens covers the cost through a voucher program, said corporate spokeswoman Emily Hartwig.

“We recognize that while the flu shot is widely covered under most insurance providers, the cost can sometimes be a barrier to those without insurance,” she said.

The cost of a typical inoculation without insurance coverage ranges between $30 and $35.

This is the fifth year Walgreens has partnered with the state to provide the free vaccinations, Hartwig said. The company also offers in-store vaccinations, she said.

“We want to improve the immunization rates in underserved communities and for people without insurance or who are underinsured,” she said. “And we’ll continue to provide access to flu shots for those who need them.”

Free flu vaccination clinics

Oct. 22 – 6 to 8 p.m., Solid Rock Baptist Church, 113 N. West St., Dover

Oct. 22 – 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Dutch Country Farmers Market, 701 N. Broad St., Middletown

Oct. 22 – 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Greenwood Fire Hall, Greenwood

Oct. 23 – 3 to 6:30 p.m., New Castle Farmer’s Market, 110 N. Dupont Highway, New Castle

Oct. 30 – 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Spence’s Bazaar, 550 S. New St., Dover

Nov. 3 – 10 a.m. to noon, YMCA, 1000 N. Walnut St., Wilmington

Nov. 18 – 4 to 7 p.m., Jesus Love Temple, 106 S. Walnut St., Milford

For more flu prevention information visit flu.delaware.gov

Source: Delaware Division of Public Health

A good offense …

The CDC does not predict the start or end of each flu season, but considers the season underway when certain indicators, such as the number of flu-like illnesses, reach a certain level and remain there. It can begin as early as October and run through May. Certain segments of the population, such as the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, are particularly vulnerable.

Generally, everyone over the age of six months should get a flu vaccination, according to the CDC, and they should start getting the shots as soon as the vaccine is available.

Early vaccination is important as it takes about two weeks for the necessary antibodies that afford the protection to develop.

It’s especially important for families with children younger than six months to be vaccinated to help avoid spreading the virus to them.

Other ways of controlling exposure include using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, washing the hands frequently with soap and water, using tissues or handkerchiefs when sneezing or coughing, or, if one does get sick, staying home to avoid spreading the virus to coworkers.

Anyone who shows flu symptoms, including cough, fever, sore throat, body aches, stuffy or runny nose, headache, chills or fatigue should contact their doctor immediately.

Overall, it’s best to take the initiative when dealing with the flu.

“The flu is definitely here, and a vaccinated population is a protected population,” Knearl said.