The area is feeling the start of the nation's earliest winter flu season in more than a decade

Nationwide, the winter flu season is off to its earliest start in more than 15 years, while the Rochester area has yet to feel the brunt of it. That could change quickly.

“We have a few confirmed cases and it looks like it’s starting to increase here,” said Mary Beer, director of Ontario County Public Health. “We are not at peak in this county and it really is not early here. The numbers are just starting to ramp up.”

Flu was widespread statewide as of Nov. 30, according to the New York State Department of Health.

In Monroe County, 62 lab-confirmed flu cases and 15 hospitalizations — including community acquired and hospital onset infections — are on record for Oct. 1 through Nov. 30.

In Canandaigua, at UR Medicine Thompson Health, Director of Infection Prevention Kristen Bloom said as of Monday Thompson had seen four positive flu cases so far this season. “This is similar to this time last year,” she said. As of Monday, there hadn’t been any flu-related hospitalizations at Thompson.

Nationwide, an early barrage of illness in the South has begun to spread more broadly, and there’s a decent chance flu season could peak much earlier than normal, health officials say.

The last flu season to rev up this early was in 2003-2004 — a bad one. Some experts think the early start may mean a lot of suffering is in store, but others say it’s too early to tell.

“It really depends on what viruses are circulating. There’s not a predictable trend as far as if it’s early it’s going to be more severe, or later, less severe,” said Scott Epperson, who tracks flu-like illnesses for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s too early to tell if this will be a ‘bad’ season,” said Beer. “The message is the same. Wash your hands, get the flu shot and stay home if you are sick.”

There are different types of flu viruses, and the one causing illnesses in most parts of the country is a surprise. It’s a version that normally doesn’t abound until March or April.

That virus generally isn’t as dangerous to older people — good news, since most flu hospitalizations and deaths each winter occur in the elderly. However, such viruses can be hard on children and people younger than 50.

Louisiana was the first state to really get hit hard, with doctors there saying they began seeing large numbers of flu-like illnesses in October. Children’s Hospital New Orleans has already seen more flu cases this fall than it saw all of last winter, said Dr. Toni Gross, the hospital’s chief of emergency medicine. Last month was the busiest ever at the hospital’s emergency department. Officials had to set up a triage system and add extra shifts, Gross said.

“It is definitely causing symptoms that will put you in bed for a week,” including fever, vomiting and diarrhea, she said. But the hospital has not had any deaths and is not seeing many serious complications, she said.

Health officials tend to consider a flu season to be officially underway when — for at least three weeks in a row — a significant percentage of U.S. doctor’s office visits are due to flu-like illnesses. That’s now happened, CDC officials said this week.

The agency on Friday estimated that there have already been 1.7 million flu illnesses, 16,000 hospitalizations, and 900 flu-related deaths nationally.

Includes reporting by The Associated Press