Get the flu vaccine to avoid a U.S. ‘twindemic’

Published 6:30 am Saturday, August 22, 2020

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By Star Tribune

The COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. fortunately had minimal overlap with the influenza season’s typical December-February peak. But that grace period is coming to a close as the new coronavirus remains uncontrolled through much of the country and the yearly flu season approaches again.

Thankfully, there’s an inexpensive, widely available remedy to avoid what experts have dubbed a “twindemic,” meaning simultaneous outbreaks of these two dangerous respiratory viruses. That solution is something we should all be getting this fall anyway — the annual flu shot.

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It’s always important to be immunized against a seasonal health threat that kills between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans annually. But the ongoing COVID crisis lends additional urgency. The flu alone can strain health care capacity during a normal year. Fewer people getting seriously ill from it would help conserve needed hospital capacity for COVID cases.

“Without a doubt if there ever was a year to get your flu shot, it’s this year,’’ said Patsy Stinchfield, a pediatric infectious–disease nurse practitioner with the Children’s Minnesota health care system.

Flu vaccine shipments are already underway to health care providers. There should be plenty of vaccine here and elsewhere. “Vaccine manufacturers have projected that they will supply between 194 million and 198 million doses of influenza vaccine for the 2020-2021 season. This is a 20 million dose increase compared to the record 175 million doses distributed for the 2019-2020 flu season,” according to a recent statement from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The shot is generally recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older, with autumn continuing to be the optimal time frame. But reports indicating frustrating reluctance to take advantage of a COVID vaccine, should one become available, also raise concerns about flu shots. Ludicrous conspiracy theories about COVID and the scientists battling it abound on social media. The disinformation could have a spillover effect of broader distrust.

The shift to home offices also raises concerns. Many people get the yearly immunization at their workplace. This year, fewer will have that opportunity.

The Minnesota Health Department is commendably strengthening its flu shot awareness campaign with the help of CDC funding. The MDH website also lists vaccination clinics where qualifying uninsured or underinsured adults can get free shots. In addition, the Minnesota Vaccines for Children Program offers free or low-cost shots for those eligible under the age of 18.

But state health officials can’t, and shouldn’t have to, power this campaign on their own. Collaboration from employers, health care providers and insurers is needed to boost awareness and find new, creative ways to make getting the shot easy and convenient. For example, the Star Tribune Editorial Board would like to see more drive-through clinics while weather permits. And are there mobile options that could reach far-flung workers and their families?

The shot is safe and usually covered without out-of-pocket expenses by insurance. Employers and insurers need to drive that message home and encourage parents to ensure that their children are vaccinated, too. Another critical reminder: Kids under 8 getting the flu immunization for the first-time or who have had only one dose previously need a second dose during the same flu season for full protection.

Research indicates that the flu vaccine can reduce children’s risk of being hospitalized for complications from the virus by a stunning 74 percent. Stinchfield, from Children’s Minnesota, advises parents to include flu preparations for their little ones as part of their Halloween activities.

“If you’re shopping for or making kids’ costumes or getting candy,” Stinchfield said, “make sure they have their flu vaccine.”