BILLINGS - A surge in flu cases now puts Montana among the top 10 states where cases have exploded to record numbers this week.
Walgreens tracks cases using retail prescription data and this week placed Montana as the seventh highest in the nation for new cases.
“It’s extremely high for this time of year,” said Kelly Gardner with RiverStone Health. “It's higher than some entire flu seasons.”
Gardner — who works as the health department's communicable disease prevention manager — says she’s tracking cases this season to likely break previous season records.
She says, people have their guards down and are a little naïve about the power of the virus this year.
“The fact that people are a little bit naive to this virus is just that much more of a reason why people should get their flu shot,” she said.
In addition, she’s urging people to get vaccinated.
“It's not too late anytime during the flu season is okay to get that vaccine,” said Gardner.
It’s because our community’s most vulnerable are highest at risk.
“Our highest age group is the zero- to five-year-olds,” she said.
Currently, Yellowstone County has seen over 1,600 cases so far this season, three deaths and 109 people in the hospital due to flu complications.
At last glance, case numbers decreased a bit during the holiday, but Gardner says that’s usually typical.
However, numbers could still be on track to double from seasons past.
"It's alarmingly high for this time of year,” she said. “We generally don't keep in flu cases until about the end of the season.
RiverStone is armed with vaccines to try to limit cases and deaths.
The agency was given 4,500 doses of the vaccine to hand out and still has plenty to give.
Brenda Koch works as the immunization program manager for RiverStone and orders the vaccines for flu season.
“It’s a busy season for us,” she said.
But there’s reason to get eager about the vaccine this year because she says opting for the shot means better protection because this year’s vaccine is well-matched to the strains currently circulating this season.
Still, there’s plenty of education to share with the public about the misconceptions about the vaccine and its efficiency.
“Everywhere we go we hear people that are convinced they were sick from the flu vaccine,” she said. “So it's always our job to educate. But it's a killed virus. You can't get sick from the flu vaccine. You were probably already coming down with something that would be administered to you, so it's a constant education.”
Both Gardner and Koch want the community to remember that flu shots are available at RiverStone Health.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services provides addition flu information on its website.
The flu season typically runs until April.