EVERETT — Roll up your sleeve. The vaccine is here.
This shot won’t protect you from COVID-19, but it can decrease your chances of getting influenza.
And that’s a big deal.
Health officials are pushing flu shots more than ever in this pandemic year, with two respiratory viruses circulating at the same time that can overload healthcare resources.
“Now is the time,” said Heather Thomas, Snohomish Health District spokeswoman. “We encourage folks from now until the end of October to get that done.”
It can take two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop and provide protection. The 2020-21 flu season officially starts Oct. 1. The peak is typically December, January and February. Last season, 158 people were hospitalized in the county for the flu.
“It’s really important that everybody over the age of six months get a flu shot,” said Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, infectious disease specialist at The Everett Clinic.
“Although the vaccine is not 100% protective, it will certainly help decrease the pressures on the hospitalizations and the medical systems in the middle of winter, and that’s what the big push is about this fall.”
The double punch of infections makes for a potential scary scenario. COVID-19 is the wild card. There is no vaccine yet. It hit as the last flu season was winding down.
Some people got both at the same time.
“If you think COVID can make you sick and make you feel bad, and if you think influenza can make you sick and feel bad, imagine how bad those folks felt when they got infected with both simultaneously,” Tu said. “It’s frightening to think about.”
Both illnesses are especially dangerous for those with chronic health issues and seniors. There is a high-dose flu vaccine this year for ages 65 years and older.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu than COVID-19. Both viruses are a threat to infants and children with underlying medical conditions.
Dr. Chris Spitters, the district’s top health officer, said in a recent press conference week that less than 25% of children in Snohomish County got a flu shot in 2018. The rate increased to about 40% of adults 18 to 65 and 60% of those over 65 years.
“But we can and must try to do better this year,” he said.
In Washington, all children under age 19 can get flu shots and other vaccines at no cost through a state program.
Last season, 11 people died from influenza in Snohomish County. Statewide, the flu claimed 109 lives. Most had underlying medical conditions.
COVID-19 is deadlier.
“We’ve had more COVID-19 deaths in the last six months than we did in the last five years of flu seasons combined,” Thomas said.
More than 200 people in the county have died from COVID-19, with more than 2,000 fatalities in the state.
The United States is closing in on 200,000 deaths from coronavirus and more than 6 million confirmed infections.
Flu season is a worry, but the good news is that many people are hand-sanitizer savvy and are social distancing.
The coronavirus outbreak spurred a lot more hand-washing and disinfecting, which is what flu experts have been preaching for years.
“The precautions that we’ve been taking around COVID are pretty much the same as with flu,” Thomas said. “If you’re not feeling well, stay home and wait until you’ve recovered before you head back out.”
Masking helps. Both infections are spread by droplets made when people cough, sneeze, talk or sing.
Tests can determine whether it is flu or COVID-19. Antiviral drugs can treat flu illness and prevent serious complications.
With COVID-19, the onset can be gradual, and people who are asymptomatic can spread the disease for longer periods.
Flu tends to have a sharp onset, Tu said.
“Influenza starts out with, bam! You get hammered on the head. You feel terrible, you have shaking chills, high fevers, body aches,” Tu said.
A possible indicator of flu activity level is from the southern hemisphere, where winter just ended.
“The amount of influenza was about one-tenth about what they typically see in Australia compared to previous years,” Tu said. “It’s not clear if it was simply a wimpy influenza season or if everybody was socially isolating, staying home and wearing masks.”
A report this week on the CDC site was cautiously optimistic what this flu season beholds. “However, given the novelty of the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of continued community mitigation measures, it is important to plan for seasonal influenza circulation in the United States this fall and winter,” the report said.
Clinics and pharmacies have adequate supplies of flu shots, Tu said. “We ordered about 20% more flu vaccines this year than last year.”
Starting soon, shots will be offered when Everett Clinic patients come in for other office visits or by appointment.
Some stores and clinics will offer drive-thru flu shots. Customers can get vaccinated without leaving their vehicle.
Many are already heading inside for a quick arm prick.
“We feel like we are going to do a lot more this year,” said Becky Buerhaus, pharmacy manager at the Everett QFC on Evergreen Way.
“More people are coming in. People who never had a flu shot.”