ST. LOUIS (KMOX/AP) – The St. Louis County Health Department is calling it a “record-breaking” flu epidemic, with more than 1,100 cases reported in the last counting period – the final week of December.

They’re bracing for even worse numbers for the first week of January – which will be released Wednesday – for two reasons, including the return of students to school.

“I think it will be a very significant impact, especially if parents are sending their children back to school ill,” says Dr. Frederick Echols, where students are in close quarters for a prolonged period of the day.

Echols, Director of Communicable Disease Control Services for the county, also says the extreme cold has thrown people together indoors.

“Extreme cold weather can actually increase the transmission of influenza because you have individuals that are staying in confined quarters for prolonged periods of time.”

Echols says the county could see 1,500 to 2,000 new flu cases a week before the flu season peaks in mid- to late-January.

State records show that the flu season in Illinois appears to be peaking early this year.

There are more than 100 more influenza outbreaks across the state this season compared with last season at this time, the Chicago Tribune reported, and the Illinois Department of Public Health said the most common flu strain this season is associated with more severe symptoms.

State health officials on Dec. 27 were prompted by the high number of cases to recommend that hospitals limit visitors and take precautions to prevent and control the spread of the flu, the AP reports. Officials are recommending those who haven’t received flu vaccines to do so.

Emergency rooms in Chicago dealing with the flu have led to a backup in admission of ambulance patients, forcing ambulances to hold patients longer. This slows Chicago Fire Department responses to new emergencies, department spokesman Larry Langford said. The department has brought five ambulances out of reserve to keep responding to calls, he said.

“We’re seeing a high level of stress right now, where at any given time hospitals are on complete bypass saying don’t bring anybody here,” Langford said.

(© Copyright 2018 Entercom Communications. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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