PORTLAND – Flu season is still far away, at least according to the calendar and the weather.

Flu shot season, meanwhile, has arrived early. And it’s shaping up to be a busy one.

Local pharmacies started selling vaccinations, as well as flu shot gift cards, last week in anticipation of a big demand for the vaccine. It is usually September before the shots become available.

“It is a little bit earlier this year,” said Eric Harkreader, a spokesman for Rite Aid in Camp Hill, Pa. “Certainly there is an increased awareness.”

Rite Aid and Walgreens started providing the shots at their pharmacies last week, while CVS plans to start vaccinating customers this week. The stores charge $25 to $30, although the cost may be covered by the customer’s insurance.

Maine’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, meanwhile, has distributed its first batches to some nursing homes and pediatricians. It also has nearly doubled its regular order of doses for the year.

“We are purchasing more flu vaccine than we’ve ever purchased before,” said Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC.

The early and expanded preparations reflect lingering public concerns about the H1N1 flu virus, plus a new federal recommendation that virtually everyone — even healthy adults — get the shot this year.

H1N1, or swine flu, emerged last year and caused the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years.

It also caused people around the country to line up for a second flu shot to protect against the virus.

The 2009 H1N1 virus is widely expected to resurface during the upcoming flu season. Only one injection will be needed this year, however, because swine flu is one of the three strains that the standard shot is intended to prevent.

In addition to the heightened awareness created by H1N1, the federal government is for the first time advising that everyone older than 6 months get vaccinated. In past years, vaccination was recommended only for the most at-risk groups, such as the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

H1N1 showed that more people, especially children, can be at risk for complications from influenza. And, even if an adult is healthy and able to withstand the flu, Mills said, “they may be living with somebody or socializing with somebody who is at high risk.”

Because health officials are recommending that virtually everybody get the shots, the process will be simpler in some ways, Mills said. It also will boost demand, especially in light of the lingering H1N1 concerns.

The state usually buys about 150,000 doses but ordered about 275,000 this year, in part because of the availability of more federal funding, Mills said. While some vaccine ordered by the state has already been shipped and distributed, most will arrive in September, as usual.

“We do not expect a shortage,” Mills said.

Maine’s public supply of vaccine will be provided free to nursing home patients and staff, pregnant women and children, Mills said. Some Maine school districts that provided H1N1 flu shots last year are planning to provide free seasonal flu shots this year, she said.

Health officials recommend that people, especially those at high risk of complications, get their shots well before flu season, which can start between October and January and last until May. Getting the vaccine early does not increase the risk of getting flu in the spring, they say.

While it is sure to be a busy season for flu shots, no one can predict how many cases of flu will occur this winter or how severe the illnesses will be.

“The most predictable thing about influenza is that it’s unpredictable. So we really don’t know,” Mills said.

But, she warned, it is always better to get vaccinated. “Even in the mildest of years, influenza is a major killer in this country.”

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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