Email Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup. Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox. Reported influenza cases and hospitalizations have increased statewide and in Flathead County in recent weeks, and health officials are reminding people they can still receive the vaccination, which is the best protection against the flu.To prevent the spread of influenza and other illnesses, health officials are also stressing the importance of frequent hand washing and other protective measures, including staying home if sick.Influenza activity is currently defined as “widespread,” according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), with 4,033 reported cases statewide since the beginning of flu season on Oct. 1 and 988 new cases in the week ending on Feb. 1, the most in a single week so far.To date, there have been 186 flu-related hospitalizations and four deaths in Montana. All counties have reported at least one case of influenza.Flathead County reported 75 new flu cases in the week ending on Feb. 1, bringing its season total to 263, third most in Montana. Gallatin County has the most with 827, followed by Yellowstone with 496. Flathead County has had seven hospitalizations over the last two weeks, according to the local health department.The DPHHS defines influenza as “a contagious, upper-respiratory disease caused by different strains of influenza viruses.” The department says influenza is more than a “minor inconvenience” and can potentially have severe implications.“As many as 200,000 Americans are hospitalized because of it each year, and as many as 36,000 die of the disease or complications associated with it,” the department says.The DPHHS notes that children under age 1, adults 65 or older and people suffering from certain medical conditions are at a higher risk of serious complications. Pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections and ear infections are examples of flu-related complications, while influenza can also exacerbate chronic health problems.Lisa Dennison, infectious disease supervisor for the Flathead City-County Health Department, said people can receive vaccinations from a variety of sources, including their general health care provider or certain places such as pharmacies. The health department also lists its walk-in immunization hours on its website.“We really encourage those who haven’t been vaccinated to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Dennison said.Dennison says people who suspect they might have the flu should call their health care provider. Those with influenza or other contagious illnesses are encouraged stay home and frequently wash their hands. Dennison notes that although hand sanitizers can help people avoid getting sick with influenza, they aren’t as effective as hand washing when dealing with norovirus.“It’s such a simple task but it’s so crucial to preventing germs from spreading,” Dennison said.Norovirus, which is highly contagious, has been circulating in the Flathead Valley. The local health department recently posted on its Facebook page a list of tips to protect against both spreading and contracting norovirus, which is the name of a group of viruses commonly referred to as the “stomach bug” and can cause diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain.Among those tips, in addition to staying home if sick and washing hands, are rinsing fruits and vegetables before eating them, avoiding preparing food for others when sick and for two days after symptoms stop, and disinfecting surfaces with bleach-based cleaners or other approved products that say they are effective against norovirus.“It’s definitely still circulating in the community,” Dennison said of norovirus.For walk-in immunization hours at the Flathead City-County Health Department, visit flatheadhealth.org/community-health-services/immunizations.