The unusually early, hard-hitting flu season has prompted two hospitals to limit visitors in the labor and delivery area in order to protect patients from the seasonal sickness.

Free vaccinations

What: 100 free flu vaccinationsWhen: Today, 5-7 p.m.Where: East Cooper Medical CenterWho: Must be at least 8 years old. Call 884-7031 for information and to register.

Roper St. Francis Healthcare said Wednesday it will restrict visitors to immediate family at Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in West Ashley and Roper’s Mount Pleasant Hospital. The downtown Roper Hospital stopped delivering babies this year. The change will happen sometime this week, said spokeswoman Kim Keelor.

Earlier in the day, Roper said it was weighing whether to follow the lead of Charlotte hospitals in Carolinas HealthCare System, which will restrict visitors under age 12 beginning today. Carolinas HealthCare System is a founding partner, or sister company, to Roper St. Francis Healthcare, Keelor said.

“Different areas of the region are experiencing different levels of influenza. We are taking our direction from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and are not implementing the same restrictions being put in place in the Charlotte area at this time,” Keelor said.

Trident Medical Center, East Cooper Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina said Wednesday they are looking into whether new visitor rules are warranted because of the flu outbreak.

“Our infection control committee is in discussion about some visiting restrictions, but as of yet no decision has been made,” said Trident spokesman Bob Behanian.

MUSC is considering whether visitation restrictions are appropriate based on community influenza and hospitalization rates as well as patient care needs, said Cassy Salgado, an infectious diseases specialist. “We do have a facility-wide policy to screen all visitors for symptoms compatible with influenza and restrict their visitation if needed,” Salgado said.

“We are looking into that but have not made any final decision,” East Cooper spokeswoman Kari Davis said.

Widespread influenza is being reported in South Carolina as visits to doctor offices, hospitalizations and deaths rise well above levels seen last year. A Barnwell County child is among the state’s 15 fatalities from flu complications.

Officials say the best protection against flu is vaccination, which can take up to a month to be fully effective. East Cooper Medical Center will offer 100 free flu vaccinations from 5 to 7 p.m. today.

“There’s an obvious need for precautionary measures that can help save lives. And we will do whatever we can to keep our community healthy,” said East Cooper Chief Executive Officer Jason Alexander.

Statewide, more than 32,000 people who received the rapid flu test in the past three months tested positive, compared with fewer than 300 for the same time last year. Hundreds of people in the state were hospitalized between Sept. 30 to Dec. 29 because of flu complications.