UPDATE: Erlanger saw a drop in flu cases last week. 

The hospital reported 42 fewer flu cases between the first week of February, where they reported 184 cases, and the last week of January, where there were 226 cases reported.

“While these latest figures are lower than the previous week, they are still significantly higher than the same period the last two years,” a hospital spokesperson said.

During the 2016-2017 season, Erlanger only reported 316 cases total by this point in the season. The season before that, only 83 cases had been reported.

Erlanger says what they are seeing this season is similar to what they saw two years ago.

“From October 2014 through mid-February 2015 Erlanger had treated a total of 1,148 flu cases,” the spokesperson added. “This year, Erlanger has reported 30 more cases during that same time period, at a total of 1,178.”

Medical officials are encouraging those who have not yet gotten a flu shot to get one.  They said it is not too late because flu season could last until May.

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During the week of January 7th, 44 percent more patients were treated at Erlanger hospitals for flu-like symptoms than during the first week of the year a hospital spokesperson explained.

Erlanger has treated 546 patients with flu-like symptoms since the beginning of flu season. By this time last year, they had only treated 84. 

An Erlanger spokesperson said, "medical specialists continue to urge area residents who have not been vaccinated to do so, noting according to the CDC flu activity often peaks between December and February and can last into May."

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Health officials say the number of cases has tripled from this time last year.

"Fever, chills, sweats, fatigue," Dr. Jonathan Kerley said, "We're seeing a lot of strep throat, flu and even mono, but a substantial increase of flu right now."

According to the CDC, the flu is considered widespread in dozens of states. While Tennessee has only seen a regional outbreak, the number of cases spiked quickly over the Christmas holiday. 

Doctor Jonathan Kerley has seen hundreds of flu-like symptoms at Fast Access Healthcare. He stresses the importance of washing your hands.

"Flu virus can live 24 or more hours on a surface, so it's important if you're touching a shopping cart that you be careful," Dr. Kerley said. 

State Health Department officials say this year's percentage of outpatients with flu-like symptoms visiting state clinics is 6.2 percent higher than the CDC's baseline national average of 2.2 percent. 

Parkridge Hospital is reporting a spike as well with 155 cases compared to 146 this time last year. 

Erlanger reports three times as many cases than the last two years with 177 cases compared to just 55 and 50 in years past. 
Private providers have reported 295 patients with flu-like symptoms to the Hamilton County Health Department, more than seven times the number of cases reported this time last year and the year before.

"There have been a few deaths at Erlanger Health System, of course, we can't predict who is going to contract the flu and who is going to develop the aggressive symptoms such as hospitalizations, pneumonia or even death," Dr. Shavonda Thomas, Erlanger Health System said. 

Dr. Thomas tells Channel 3, the spike may be linked to this year's flu season starting earlier. Typically the virus peaks in early to mid-February. 

This year's vaccine is also only 10 percent effective. Dr. Thomas says it does not aggressively attack this year's common strain H3N2. In the past, H3N2 virus-predominant influenza seasons have been associated with more hospitalizations and deaths in persons aged 65 years and older and young children compared to other age groups. In addition, influenza vaccine effectiveness, in general, has been lower against H3N2 viruses, according to the CDC. 

"The reason that the flu vaccine is 10 percent effective this year is because the flu virus tends to change over time," Dr. Thomas said.

Doctors still recommend getting the flu vaccine because it can protect you from other strains and shorten the life of the virus.

Officials are expecting to see the number of cases continue to climb. Erlanger reported 10 cases in one week last month. That number spiked to 57 cases the week before Christmas and 75 cases just last week. 

PREVIOUS STORY: Flu cases are on the rise in the Tennessee Valley.

According to Erlanger Hospital, "the number of influenza-like illnesses treated at Erlanger is three times higher than last year’s figures."

Erlanger has reported 177 cases to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department over the last three months. During the 2015 and 2016 flu seasons, there were only around 50 reported cases by this same time each year.

Dr. Shavonda Thomas, internal medicine physician with Erlanger’s Community Health Centers, said:

“Flu season doesn’t normally peak until January/February.  Therefore, it’s important to take precautions such as getting the vaccine, washing your hands, and avoiding others if you suspect you have flu-like symptoms. Most individuals are strong enough to fight off the illness with supportive care such as adequate rest, fluids, and acetaminophen/ibuprofen.  If you feel ill, you should also avoid contact with others in order to decrease spread of the virus.”  

Erlanger said that high-risk individuals including the elderly, children and pregnant patients should contact their doctor if they experience worsening flu symptoms to see if an antiviral medication is needed.

The flu vaccine is recommended for all individuals who are six months or older.

“It is not too late to get the flu vaccine if you haven’t already received one this season,” Dr. Thomas added. “It can take approximately two weeks after vaccination for it to offer protection.  Additionally, getting the vaccine is helpful because it may reduce the severity or duration of flu symptoms.”