Tri-City health officials say flu season has kicked into high gear locally, but the peak for the respiratory virus is yet to come.
Dr. Amy Person, health officer for the Benton Franklin Health District, told the bicounty health board Wednesday that the H3N2 strain of influenza seen this year is one associated with more severe illness, but is a strain included in this year's vaccine.
"We are trying to get as many people immunized as possible," Person said.
Seven flu deaths have been reported this season in Washington, including one in Spokane this week -- the first in Eastern Washington since the 2012-13 flu season started.
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There have been no flu deaths this season in Benton or Franklin counties.
Person didn't have statistics on how many flu cases have been seen so far in the Tri-Cities this season because flu only is reported to health agencies when there's a death or an unusual strain, such as the H1N1 "swine flu" epidemic in 2009.
Person has heard area emergency rooms and clinics are busy with patients suffering from flulike symptoms.
And about 15 percent of the samples taken from possible flu patients are testing positive for the virus.
Health officials expect to see about 25 percent to 30 percent testing positive at the peak of the flu season, leading Person to believe the peak is yet to come locally.
Vaccine remains available in the two counties despite some reported shortages in other parts of the country, she said.
The flu vaccine is available at many pharmacies and doctors' offices, and at the Benton Franklin Health District by appointment. Call the district at 460-4200 to schedule.
The flu vaccine is provided free for children up to age 18, but health care providers may charge for an office visit or an administration fee to give the shot. People who can't afford the fee can ask for it to be waived.
A flu shot also might be covered by health insurance.
In addition to getting vaccinated, the spread of flu can be prevented by frequent hand-washing, covering a cough or sneeze, and staying home from school or work when sick.
Influenza is a viral respiratory illness with symptoms that include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.
The virus spreads through droplets that are transmitted when sick people cough, sneeze or talk. Droplets can land on other people or on surfaces or objects that people touch, the Department of Health said.
While most people recover in a few days and need no more treatment than plenty of rest and fluids, flu can be dangerous -- or even deadly -- for young children, seniors and people with chronic illnesses that weaken their immune systems.