The upcoming flu season will be like none seen before and could bring as much of an emotional toll as a physical one, local and state health officials said Tuesday.
That's because as the novel H1N1 virus has made its way around the globe this summer, it's continued to wreak havoc on the very young, as opposed to its counterpart - the seasonal flu - that widely strikes the elderly.
"Expect a flu season that is three times as big as the seasonal flu," said Dr. Bob England, director of the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. "That's going to be a tremendous burden on the health care system."
England's comments came Tuesday, on the heels of a White House report released Monday about the H1N1 virus, formerly known as the swine flu.
The death toll may be triple the state's usual seasonal flu numbers, England said, because more people are going to get sick.
"Most are going to be children and young adults," he said. "That's going to shock a lot of people when we see three times as many people dying, but guess what, all of them are young. That's going to be hard on all of us."
The estimate is in line with the federal report that predicts between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths nationwide. Seasonal flu deaths typically are between 30,000 and 40,000 in the U.S., with the majority over the age of 65. Arizona's seasonal flu deaths typically number around 700, according to the state's Web site.
The illness first made headlines last spring in Mexico and quickly made its way to Arizona, where it has continued to fester during the summer.
The disease appears to be no more of a physical threat than the seasonal flu, said Will Humble, interim director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. But it's showing a stronger ability to transfer from person to person than the seasonal flu.
The variance in predicting how many people get sick depends on how many people get the vaccine when it becomes available, anti-viral use and how many people follow the push to stay home when they're sick, Humble said.
"This is ultimately just the flu," England said. "Most of us who get this are going to feel sick. We're going to feel lousy. We're going to cough."
A vaccine for H1N1 is still in the works. It should be available in mid-October, Humble said.
Health providers may not have as much H1N1 vaccine as the public demands in the first few weeks, England said. The priority - because of who the H1N1 virus strikes most - will be children and pregnant women.
To help alleviate stress on hospitals and urgent cares, health officials are urging people to get their seasonal flu shots.
"The feds and the state are both recommending seasonal flu shots can begin as soon as the vaccine is available," England said. "Let's get it into as many people as we can as fast as we can."
Mollen Immunization Clinics will begin in some locations next week. A full rollout - with 100 clinics daily in the Valley - will start shortly after Labor Day, said John Roehm, CEO of Mollen Immunization Clinics.
Nationwide, the organization expects to deliver 2 million seasonal flu immunizations.
Roehm said he is working with the county health department and local school districts to offer school-based clinics. Where it is available, students may receive both the seasonal and H1N1 vaccine concurrently, hopefully by mid- to late October, Roehm said.