Flu season doesn't have an official start date or end date each year in the same way that hurricane season does. Rather, health officials play it by ear. Once "a significant number" of doctor's office visits are related to flu-like illnesses for three weeks in a row, federal disease-control officials deem that flu season has started. That standard has now been met, in what officials are deeming a rather early head start.
"Last year marked the longest flu season in a decade, and now we are seeing this year's flu season off to an alarmingly fast start," said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) during a hearing with health officials this week.
Two weeks ago, seven states reported high levels of flu activity. Last week, that number had jumped to 12 states plus Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, 14 states are reporting moderate levels of flu activity, up from seven the previous week.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), already an estimated 1.7 million Americans have gotten sick with the flu, and 900 are believed to have died from the illness or related complications. Last year, by comparison, 61,000 Americans are believed to have died from the flu.
For example, Scott Epperson, a flu-tracker for the CDC, was reluctant to point to a trend this early in the game.
"There's not a predictable trend as far as if it's early it's going to be more severe, or later, less severe," he said.
Similarly, Dave Osthus, a statistician in flu forecasting at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said the early trends could point to a bad year, but conceded that there's no knowing for certain.
"This could be a precursor to something pretty bad. But we don't know," he said.