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Providers, public health officials stress the importance of getting a flu shot, especially in the midst of a pandemic

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 18, 2020

A syringe with influenza vaccine inside heads for its mark during a flu vaccination earliers this year in Texas. Health officials are urging residents to get this year's flu shot.  (LM Otero)
A syringe with influenza vaccine inside heads for its mark during a flu vaccination earliers this year in Texas. Health officials are urging residents to get this year's flu shot. (LM Otero)

Health care providers and public health officials are asking Washington state residents to get a flu shot this year to help ease potential surges in the health care system due to people who may need treatment for both COVID-19 and influenza.

So far, in countries in the southern hemisphere where influenza season begins, the current flu season appears to be mild, Dr. Clint Hauxwell, a local physician and board member of the Washington State Medical Association, said.

“It has been theorized that that may be in part due to precautions taken because of COVID-19,” Hauxwell said.

Flu season in North America typically arrives around November and lasts into March or April.

Hospitalizations and deaths due to influenza are common, and health officials fear what a combined coronavirus pandemic and bad flu season would look like.

“One could envision a scenario where we have a normal or more severe than usual flu season coupled with the coronavirus, and our medical system could quickly become overwhelmed not only with outpatient visits and testing (but also) with hospitalizations and intensive care,” Hauxwell said.

The influenza vaccine is approved and safe for nearly all people, from babies six months old and older. Hauxwell noted that the vaccine is effective in preventing the flu and decreasing the number of hospitalizations and deaths from the flu as well. In other words, if a person who gets a flu shot still manages to catch the flu, their bout with the illness will not nearly be as severe.

Getting a flu shot is not popular among adults in Washington.

In 2018, about 40% of adults in Spokane County received the influenza vaccine. Across the entire state about 38% of adults got the vaccine.

Because flu symptoms and COVID symptoms are similar, health care providers also anticipate needing to test patients with coughs, fevers and chills for both influenza and COVID-19.

Washington state has stockpiled PPE and testing equipment, and Reed Schuler, senior policy advisor for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state is prepared for a surge of need.

“The state is ready to respond and is in the position of responding on a week-to-week basis to county emergency managers,” Schuler told reporters this week. “We’ve done a range of scenario planning looking at flu seasons and surge planning to make sure we have adequate supplies.”

State health officials have also repeated providers’ calls for everyone to get a flu vaccine this year in order to support the health care system throughout the fall and winter. Beyond flu vaccines, wearing face coverings can also help prevent the spread of the flu.

“Whatever we do for COVID will help protect us against flu and in that sense, it’s a two-for-one,” Secretary of Health John Wiesman told reporters earlier this month.

Some local pharmacies and health care providers already have the influenza vaccine available for patients, which is free or low-cost for most residents with health insurance. It takes about two weeks for a person to develop immunity to the flu after getting the vaccine, which is why officials encourage residents to get the vaccine in the next month or so before flu season begins officially around November.

COVID-19 activity in the state is decreasing, overall, but not in a uniform way. A report on Friday from the Institute for Disease Modeling found that COVID activity is now plateauing in Benton, Franklin, Spokane and Grant counties. Cases in Adams and Whitman counties continue to increase.

Here’s a look at local COVID-19 numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 70 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, bringing the county total to 6,183. There are 30 county residents being treated for the virus in local hospitals.

Virus activity has increased in Spokane County this week, and the most recent incidence rate is 98 cases per 100,000 residents. The region’s incidence rate is higher than the state average currently which is 74 cases per 100,000 residents.

There are outbreaks in 11 long-term care facilities in Spokane County, accounting for 291 cases. Sullivan Park Care Center, Rockwood Retirement South Hill and Cornerstone Memory Care all have outbreaks with more than 30 cases in staff or residents, according to data from the Spokane Regional Health District.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 43 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, and 17 residents are hospitalized with the virus from the five-county region.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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