The state’s most populous county is experiencing by far its worst flu season on record and, for whatever reason, young, healthy adults are being hit the hardest, Douglas County health officials said Monday.

About 2,400 cases have been confirmed through testing in Douglas County, about three times the number that had been reported at this point two years ago, the previous record flu season. In recent weeks, about 15% of confirmed cases have involved people going to the emergency room or being hospitalized, according to county data.

Last week, Douglas County had its first confirmed death from the flu, a woman over age 65, health officials said.

Also this month, a 36-year-old mother, Crystal Velasquez, became gravely ill with the flu. Velasquez has become unresponsive, and if she survives, she’s not expected to be able to walk or talk, said her sister, Sally Grauf.

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“We are beyond devastated and don’t know what to prepare for at this point,” she posted on Velasquez’s GoFundMe page. Velasquez did not have health insurance and may not have gotten a flu shot, her sister said.

The actual number of people ill and dying from flu in Douglas County “absolutely” is higher, said Dr. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist for Douglas County. Many people don’t go to the doctor, and reporting flu deaths isn’t mandatory. Confirmed cases are those in which a patient has gone to a doctor and been tested for the flu.

About 86% of the county’s confirmed cases have been among people younger than 50, with the largest number in the 5- to 24-year-old age group, according to county data. About 5% of flu cases have been among those 65 and older.

O’Keefe said it’s not really known why the strains circulating this year are striking young people hardest. It could be that older adults have developed some immunity from earlier versions of the types circulating this year. Flu viruses mutate, O’Keefe said, which allows the virus to survive.

Not only is this season seeing a record outbreak, the spread is accelerating at a record pace, too.

Last week, 813 cases were confirmed, a record for any individual week and more than double the average number for the entire month of December, based on county data for the past 10 years.

With the holidays approaching and flu occurring at a record pace, O’Keefe is encouraging people to practice good hygiene in the days ahead: Stay away from others if you become ill, wash your hands frequently, cough into your sleeve.

But most importantly, she said, get a flu shot. “Do not delay, get one as soon as possible,” she said. “Even if you think you’re strong, get one to protect those around you.”

The flu vaccine inoculates people against four types of flu, including the two that are circulating now, the H1N1 and B influenza, she said. People can develop an immunity in about two weeks, which would prepare them for the peak of the season, typically January and February, with high numbers still occurring in March.

“Flu is unpredictable, and this year it is proving that,” O’Keefe said.

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Phone: 402-444-1102.

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