With a worsening early flu outbreak across the country causing a run on vaccines on the Island, the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and Island boards of health announced that they will hold a free clinic Sunday for Islanders seeking flu vaccinations. The clinic will be held in the physician's office building from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the hospital, Edgartown health agent Matthew Poole said. Island residents will be notified of the clinic via the reverse 911 system, probably sometime late Friday, Mr. Poole said.

Approximately 500 doses of vaccine will be available.

“It’s a good number of doses,” Mr. Poole said.

“The information that’s out there is that there’s a lot of flu activity,” he said. “We’re going with that.”

The Centers for Disease Control is reporting widespread flu activity in Massachusetts that began during the last two weeks of December. On Wednesday morning Boston mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency for the city based on widespread influenza. The Boston Globe reported that 700 cases of the flu have been confirmed in Boston, compared to 70 last year. There have been 18 flu-related deaths in Massachusetts.

Vineyard pharmacies, in their second year of offering the flu shot, thanks to a Massachusetts pilot program, had all run out of their doses as of Thursday morning.

Vaccines for people 65 and older, the population most vulnerable to adverse effects of the flu, were still available at Vineyard Scripts in Vineyard Haven.

A flu clinic held last September gave out 600 vaccines, well below the 1,000 the boards of health aim to distribute each year, Mr. Poole said, although he said this year many people insteadchose to get their shots at a pharmacy. With the pharmacies now out, the boards of health and the hospital are combining their supplies.

“We’ve got enough [of a supply] to make it worthwhile to hold a clinic,” Mr. Poole said. “Our goal is always to find recipients.”

“People are well advised to get [the vaccine],” said Cynthia Mitchell, executive director of Island Health Care clinic in Edgartown. “It’s sometimes hard for us to tell what is the flu, but we’ve been getting ILI [influenza-like illness],” Mrs. Mitchell said. “We’re seeing a ton of it.”

Dr. Gerry Yukevich of Vineyard Medical Services wrote in an e-mail that the Vineyard Haven clinic had seen an “influx of viral syndrome patients” beginning last Friday and continuing through the week.

Flu season typically peaks in late February or March, and this year’s outbreaks are unusually early for the virus, according to the CDC. Martha’s Vineyard is no exception. "Generally the season lasts about 12 weeks. I guess it's probably peaking right about now," said Dr. Jeffrey Zack, Martha's Vineyard Hospital emergency room director. Dr. Zack said in the past few years flu season has peaked late on the Vineyard. "We're kind of sick of influenza," he said.

“Anecdotally, it’s earlier than we’ve ever seen,” said Carol Bardwell, chief nursing officer at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, earlier in the week. Ms. Bardwell said there were 31 confirmed cases of the flu at the hospital in December. Three patients were admitted, and 28 came through the emergency room or their primary care physician.

Pediatrician Melanie Miller said in a telephone conversation that she was in her office until 9 p.m. on Wednesday night working on paperwork for flu cases. On Tuesday, she finished up with her last patient at 8:30 p.m. Dr. Miller’s office typically sees about 20 patients per day, but in the past week the daily number climbed above 30. Dr. Miller remembered seeing her first flu case in December.

“I’m very lucky, though, because I started vaccinating patients in August,” she said. Nearly all of the cases she has seen so far were among children who had not been vaccinated.

More flu vaccine will be available to Island residents on Sunday. — Ray Ewing

There are many strains of influenza that appear each season, and each year developers of the vaccine must decide which three they think will be the most prevalent before creating the national supply. This year, the CDC reported, developers were 99 per cent accurate in their predictions. This means that it is possible but unlikely for people who are vaccinated to get the virus. A common myth, Dr. Miller said, is that the vaccine itself can cause the flu.

“You can’t get the flu from the shot because it’s not a live virus,” she said. Because the vaccine is not a live virus, it takes approximately seven to 10 days for a person to build up immunity to the virus. During this time, a person is still vulnerable to getting the flu.

But the vaccine developers’ near-match was good news for what is shaping up to be a long and severe flu season.

“Thank goodness, they nailed the exact configuration of the vaccine,” said Tami Conroy, owner of Conroy’s Apothecary. Conroy’s administered approximately 50 vaccines last year between its two locations. This year the pharmacy administered more than 500 and ran out of vaccine by Christmas.

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School nurse Linda Leonard said that despite the early arrival of the flu, the number of cases she had seen was about the same as in previous years.

“I’m not seeing it differently than any other year, which is good,” she said. “It’s not like H1N1.” When the H1N1 flu virus broke out three years ago, it came in early November.

Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. James Weiss said that while principals are reporting higher than normal numbers of students and staff out sick, not all of the cases are flu. Mr. Weiss said stomach bugs and the common cold accounted for many sick days.

Influenza and the common cold are both respiratory illnesses caused by viruses, but the flu is typically much more severe and long-lasting. Patients with the flu experience high fevers, headaches and muscle aches, and extreme exhaustion. Runny noses, sneezing and sore throats are symptoms of the common cold. Coughing can be a symptom of the flu, but is more prevalent in colds. A lab test can confirm whether or not a patient has the flu.

Edgartown School nurse Nicole Barlett has been working with two eighth-grade students to educate the school on the flu and flu prevention. The group presented at morning meetings this week, discussing the importance of building up the immune system and staying healthy throughout the winter.

If a person suspects they have the flu “they need to go home and rest,” Mrs. Barlett said. “Lots of fluids, lots of rest.”