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Flu season starts early, hard in South Dakota

PIERRE (AP) -- The flu season has started early in South Dakota, and cases might surpass last season's total of 505.

More than 400 cases have been confirmed so far, compared with just five at the same time last year, according to the most recent data. There also have been three flu-related deaths in the state.

The flu season in South Dakota typically peaks in February, but it's happening earlier this year, State Epidemiologist Lon Kightlinger told the media. There is no clear explanation for the changes from year to year.

"All we know is it's going to hit in the late fall and winter," Kightlinger said. "It's just almost like the season is coming and we don't know exactly what month, how severe, what virus or how it's going to circulate."

Natalie Braun, a certified nurse practitioner in the Avera Medical Group's clinic in Groton, said she has seen patients with flu symptoms on a daily basis since well before Christmas.

"It's remaining steady even through the new year," she said.

Last year, Braun said, she didn't see cases until the middle of February.

"I think we've just got to ride it out. We've got a lot of winter left," she said.

Kightlinger said he didn't know whether the season has peaked or cases will continue to grow.

"I hope what happens is we peak here in January and it goes down, but there's absolutely no reason for that," he said. "We could be in for a long and hard flu season, or it could be fast and strong."

Flu cases are being reported across the country. Health officials advise people who haven't gotten a flu shot to get one.

"A majority of my patients that are infected did not receive a flu shot," Braun said.