Cooler weather and shorter days mean flu season is just around the corner.
With Alaska hospitals currently strained by record counts of COVID-positive patients, state health officials this week stressed the importance of getting a flu shot this year to protect individual people and the state’s vulnerable health care system against yet another highly contagious respiratory illness.
“There’s not many hospital beds, so (there’s) even more reason to get vaccinated against the flu this year,” Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, said this week during a call with reporters.
Last year’s flu season was mild. Does that mean a flu shot isn’t necessary this year?
Alaska last year reported significantly fewer influenza cases than in any flu season in recent history.
Between October 2020 and late February 2021, less than 100 influenza cases were confirmed statewide, according to data compiled by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. For comparison’s sake, the previous year — during what has been described as a relatively mild flu season — that number was closer to 400. And the year before that, it was closer to 1,200.
“I think with all the mitigation measures, with all the masking, with people really keeping their bubbles small, that impacted all respiratory transmission,” Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist with Alaska’s state health department, said this week.
However, some studies have predicted that this year’s flu season could be worse than usual compared with a normal year. Those studies include two recent, non-peer-reviewed preprints published by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.
Those researchers hypothesize that because last year’s flu season was practically nonexistent, natural immunity may be waning, resulting in more severe cases this fall and winter. With schools reopening and people back to many of their pre-pandemic activities, viruses also will have more opportunities to spread.
While the future is often difficult to predict when it comes to the flu, getting inoculated this year will be important no matter what, Castrodale said.
“We’ve learned we never predict with flu, because flu knows what it wants to do,” she said.
The bottom line: “We hope people get vaccinated to minimize the impact that it has on hospitalizations and deaths in our community,” she said.
But the flu is less deadly than COVID-19, right? Why get a flu shot?
While so far considered less deadly than COVID-19, flu sickens and kills thousands of people every year.
Although the last flu season in Alaska and across the country was mild, it still sent over 740,000 people nationwide to the hospital, and resulted in somewhere between 24,000 and 62,000 deaths, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
No vaccine is 100% effective, but getting vaccinated against the flu has long been considered the best way to protect yourself and more high-risk friends and family — especially young children and older adults — from being hospitalized or dying from the flu, health experts say.
Who should get a flu shot?
Anyone 6 months and older, unless a doctor has specifically recommended against getting a flu shot because of a prior, rare, severe reaction, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
When is the best time to get a flu shot? How do I get one?
The official recommendation from the CDC is that people should ideally be vaccinated by the end of October — and mid-September is an excellent time for most people to get the shot, officials say.
Children younger than 6 months or who are getting their flu shot for the first time should get their shots as soon as possible. That’s because they’ll need two doses, with the second typically given at least four weeks after the first. It can take a few weeks to build up immunity, which is why these shots are recommended sooner rather than later.
Early vaccination can also be considered for people who are in the third trimester of pregnancy, because this can help protect their infants during the first months of life, when they are too young to be vaccinated.
The state has purchased about 150,000 doses of flu vaccine this year, and that doesn’t include additional, commercially purchased supply, said Matt Bobo, immunizations manager with the state health department.
“You can go to any pharmacy, or ask your health care provider about where to get the vaccine,” he said.
Is it OK to get a flu shot at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine?
Yes. The CDC has recently said it is safe to get both vaccines at the same time. (If you’re quarantining or in isolation for COVID-19, you should wait to get a flu shot until you’re fully recovered or out of quarantine.)
It’s advisable to get each vaccine in a different arm, which may reduce any pain and swelling that might occur.