Jill Larcade said everyone should get vaccinated against the flu.
"The last season was especially devastating," said Larcade, Muskogee County Health Department regional director, in a news release. "We want to ensure that as many people as possible can receive the added protection that the flu vaccine provides.
"We are encouraging everyone to get their flu vaccination, and we hope this effort to make it cost-free to individuals will make it more accessible," Larcade said in a news release.
According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) statistics, 4,835 people have been hospitalized since Sept. 2017 until August of this year with the flu. There also have been 291 deaths over that same period of time, the OSDH said.
"With a little variability, the flu season goes from October through May, and we're looking at December through February as the peak of the season," said Casey Van Woerkem, an epidemiologist in the OSDH's Acute Disease Services. "It has been relatively mild in the southern hemisphere this year but that doesn't exactly mean what we'll see that here. The flu is unpredictable.
"We don't know how bad it's going to be this year until we get into the season. That's why we're encouraging everyone to get their vaccine."
The Muskogee County Health Department, like others across the state, started offering free vaccines at the beginning of the month to those who get the shot. Those who are insured are asked to provide their card that shows coverage prior to getting the shot.
The OSDH recommends anyone at the age of six months and older as well as older than 65 to get the flu shot.
"The way the flu affects someone depends on the individual, but those are the groups most susceptible to getting the flu," Van Woerkom said. "Anyone who has an immune-compromising condition is also susceptible."
Van Woerkom said this year's vaccine is quadrivalent, which means it will protect against four strains of the virus.
"Every year, the virus changes and mutates. That's why it's crucial to get vaccinated every year," Dr. Eliza Chakarvarty said in a release from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF).
According to Van Woerkom, symptoms of the flu include coughing, muscle, body aches and headaches. Other symptoms could also include nausea, fever, vomiting and diarrhea.
Van Woerkom and others in the medical field urges everyone to get their flu shot. For anyone who doesn't like needles, a nasal spray will also be available this season.
A common belief is if one gets a flu shot, he or she will get the flu. The OMRF said, in a release, that's not true. Side effects include soreness, swelling at the injection site and low fever.
"That's simply your body doing its job and building up its defenses," Chakravarty said in a release. "If you get the flu, you'll know. If you can physically get the shot, do it. It saves lives."
Flu prevention tips
Besides getting a flu shot, the Oklahoma Department of Health recommends the following prevention tips:
• Adopt a healthy lifestyle by eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, and getting a full night’s rest.
• Wash hands frequently using soap and water, or alcohol-based products such as hand gels when hands are not visibly soiled.
• Use tissues to cover coughs and sneezes, then dispose of them and wash your hands immediately. When tissues are not readily available, cough into your sleeve, not your hands.
• Stay home from work, school and other public places when feeling ill.
Here is a breakdown of area county hospitalizations for the flu from Sept. 1, 2017 to Aug. 31, 2018:
• Wagoner 123
• Muskogee 122
• Cherokee 57
• McIntosh 37
Source: Oklahoma State Department of Health