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The flu season is upon us.
But is it hitting the Peach State harder than other places?
We wondered after seeing a map on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website Thursday, showing Georgia with the highest flu activity in the country, and hearing television reports repeating the claim.
The short answer: Not really.
Flu season starts in October and can run into May. It typically peaks in Georgia by early January, with upticks after Thanksgiving and Christmas when germs are often passed like holiday feasts.
Flu vaccines are designed to protect against the main flu viruses that research suggests will be the most common of the season. This year’s vaccines protect against three viruses.
The CDC develops its "flu view" map based on weekly reports from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico of outpatient visits to doctors for treatment of flu-like symptoms.
The information is voluntarily submitted by doctors’ offices to their state public health departments.
States on the CDC map are assigned to one of four levels of influenza-like illness activity -- minimal, low, moderate, or high.
Georgia was identified as having "low" flu activity in the week of Oct. 4 through Oct. 10, the most recent period for which outpatient information was available on Thursday.
But that was a notch above the rest of the nation, which this early in flu season fell in the minimal range.
"The biggest takeaway is the flu is here," said Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health, "and if you don’t have a flu shot, you need to get one."
Georgia did not report any hospitalizations or deaths due to the flu in that week, Nydam said.
South Carolina, meanwhile, had four flu deaths but showed up with less flu activity on the CDC map because the map -- again -- is based on how many people see a doctor, not how many die.
"It’s really misleading," Nydam said. "The numbers (of patients with flu-like symptoms) are so low."
Georgia reported 22,273 patients visiting doctor’ offices in the week of Oct. 4 through Oct. 10, with 379 of those patients or 1.7 percent exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
Compare that to a report from a week in December 2014, when 20,835 people visited doctors, 1,643 or 7.89 percent with flu-like symptoms.
Changes come quickly
If Georgia was identified as the state with the highest flu activity on Thursday, it was a different story Friday.
That’s because on Friday the Georgia Department of Public Health had later, data from the week starting Oct. 11.
It showed Georgia’s flu activity down in the minimal range, where the rest of the country had been the week before. (Of 25,876 patients, 355 or 1.37 percent had flu-like symptoms.
South Carolina and Alaska jumped ahead of Georgia in activity, but they were just higher in the minimal range, Nydam said.
The CDC doesn’t look at the flu activity in isolation, said Lynnette Brammer, CDC epidemiologist.
The map is just one of nine resources that the CDC uses to track increases in flu-like illnesses across the country, she said.
"You take a look at all those pieces, including laboratory data, and you can get a pretty complete picture of flu that comes in contact with health care systems," Brammer said.
"With flu, you should never look at just one piece."
Doctors report cases where patients complain of flu-like symptoms -- fever, cough or sore throat, she said.
"That flu-like illness may have been flu or may not have been," Brammer said.
Georgia had the highest flu activity in the country based on data provided by doctors offices across the country and mapped by the CDC for the week of Oct. 4 through Oct. 10.
That information factors into the CDC’s efforts to track what goes on through flu season. But it’s based on data submitted voluntarily and that, as we have seen, can change week -to-week.
That’s important context that downgrades the statement to Mostly True.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention "flu view" map for week 40 ending Oct. 10, 2015 and for week 41 ending Oct. 17, 2015
"Georgia has highest flu activity in country" WSB-TV, Oct, 21, 2015
"Georgia Has Most Cases of Flu in the Country, Still Ranks ‘Low’ Range," WRBL , Oct. 21, 2015
"Georgia sees early flu activity," WXIA-TV, Oct. 21, 2015
Interview with Nancy Nydam, media relations manager, Georgia Department of Public Health
Interview with Lynnette Brammer, epidemiologist, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Profile, Lynnette Brammer, CDC, The Washington Post
About the 2015-2016 flu season, the CDC -- what you should know
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