Experts Warn We Could Have an 'Extremely Severe' Flu Season: Here's What to Know

"The vaccination is the key," says Richard J. Webby, Ph.D. "It's certainly not too late" to get the flu shot

sick woman
Photo: Getty

It’s only just beginning, but the 2019-2020 flu season is already off to a potentially record-setting pace after an “atypically” early start.

According to new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, there have been an estimated 6.4 million cases of the flu and 2,900 flu-related deaths since Sept. 29, when they start tracking the flu. Over the last week, visits to the doctor for flu symptoms jumped from 5.1 percent of Americans to 6.9, a significant increase.

“This is definitely an earlier season,” CDC press officer Scott Pauley tells PEOPLE, “[and] it’s definitely a concern that we’ve been maintaining it for so long. We’re at eight weeks of sustained activity above the baseline.”

“If this continues to raise and increase, we could end up having an extremely severe season, one of the more severe ones we’ve had in a while,” he says.

Part of the reason why this season is so strong, so early, is because the flu has primarily been a strain of influenza B, which is unusual for this time of the year.

“It’s relatively common that we start the season with influenza A, and the influenza B season comes later,” Richard J. Webby, Ph.D., a researcher with the Department of Infectious Disease at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, tells PEOPLE.

Though influenzas A and B have similar symptoms, B is less common overall, and people likely have built up fewer antibodies to fight that strain of the flu.

influenza B
St. Judes Children's Hospital

Pauley says the rise of influenza B this season is also the likely why there have already been 27 pediatric flu-related deaths — the highest number at this time of the year in 16 seasons.

“While children are likely to have had some exposure to influenza A from their parents, they’re not as likely to have been in contact with influenza B, so it’s going to have more of an impact on them,” he says.

And the flu vaccine this year is “not ideally matched” to this particular strain of influenza B, says Webby. Still, he urges anyone who has not yet gotten the flu shot to do so now.

“There are four components in the vaccine, with two influenza A antigens and two influenza B antigens. We’re having an early flu B season, and last year we almost saw two different flu seasons with four different strains. So if that happens again it may well be with a virus that’s better matched with the vaccine,” he says. “It’s certainly not too late.”

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People should also be aware that, unfortunately, even if they get the flu at the start of the season they could get it again.

“It’s not common, but there are examples of that happening,” Webby says. “It’s possible to get it from another strain, and one may not protect you from the other three.”

But, again — even if this year’s flu vaccine isn’t ideally matched to the strain that is circulating now, it is extremely important to get the shot.

“The vaccination is the key,” he says. “This is not the perfect way to protect yourself, and just because you get the vaccine does not mean you won’t get the flu, but it’s certainly the best approach.”

And don’t worry: “there’s just no possible way” for people to get the flu from the flu shot.

“Categorically no,” says Webby, who speculates that the people who say they always get sick from the shot just suffer from poor timing. “We are getting that vaccine at the same time as a lot of winter illnesses and sniffles and colds are coming along, so in many cases it may be coincidence.”

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