Two people in Pierce County have died of the flu so far this year in what health officials are describing as the earliest-arriving flu season in 10 years. The county, like the rest of the Puget Sound area, the state and the nation, are feeling the effects of the earliest flu outbreak since 2003. But the steps to prevent the onset and spread of the illness remain the same, and the most important step once again is for people to get a flu shot, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. "Vaccination is the best thing people can do to protect themselves and their families,GÇ¥ said Nigel Turner, director of the department's communicable disease division. "While we recommend that people get the flu shot as early as possible, you can get a flu shot throughout the season. This simple step not only protects you from the flu, but it helps to protect vulnerable people in our community such as infants, the elderly and immune-compromised individuals.GÇ¥ -áIt's also important to get the flu shot annually, Turner stressed. Each year, the formulation of the shot uses the three flu viruses that are expected to circulate that season. This season's vaccine includes protection against two new viruses that are different from last season's flu vaccine. -áAccording to a recent national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, people vaccinated with this season's flu vaccine are about 62 percent less likely to need to go to a doctor for treatment of flu. "This translates into a couple of things,GÇ¥ said Turner. "With the protection of the flu shot, you may not get sick, and if you do get sick, your symptoms will likely be less severe.GÇ¥ Turner noted that the Health Department publishes a calendar of free and low-cost vaccination clinic opportunities for children, as well as online links to providers of free or low-cost flu shot providers for adults on its web site at www.tpchd.org/flu. In addition, the department partners with Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and Franciscan Health System to offer free vaccination clinics for children. Since last fall, the Health Department has distributed 63,000 doses of children's flu vaccine to community providers. Of these, more than 43,000 have been administered, officials said last week. Health officials say it's impossible to predict the severity of any flu season, but seasons usually begin in October and last through the following April. In the Northwest, the flu typically begins to circulate in December and peaks usually between late January and March. Last year, the peak wasn't reached until April.-á -áUnlike pertussis, medical providers aren't required to report cases of flu to the Health Department, so the agency monitors influenza through laboratory data, information from hospital emergency rooms and urgent-care providers, and student absenteeism in schools due to illness. In addition to getting the flu shot, officials say other steps to prevent or reduce the spread of influenza include: " Wash your hands: Frequent and proper hand washing is one the most effective ways to reduce the spread of germs. Wash with soap and warm water, scrubbing all parts of your hands and wrists for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water isn't easily accessible. " If you're sick, stay home. Viruses spread quickly. Don't share your germs with coworkers and classmates. " Cover your cough'Use your elbow or a disposable tissue, not your hand, to cover your cough. " Keep it clean. Use sanitizing wipes or spray to clean counters, door knobs, telephone handsets, computers and other surfaces that you frequently touch.