With COVID-19 circulating at the same time as influenza, and with a fair amount of publicity given to flu shots, Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst was surprised to find a drop in the number of southeast Minnesotans receiving flu vaccinations.
According to Minnesota Immunization Information Connection’s State Immunization Registry, comparing data from Nov. 15, 2019 to Nov. 15, 2020, nearly 6,000 fewer individuals have received flu vaccinations in Rice, Steele, Freeborn, Fillmore, Mower, Olmsted, Wabasha, Winona, Goodhue, Dodge and Houston counties combined. The decrease is cause for concern among health professionals trying to keep influenza cases down while waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s not too late to receive it; if you haven’t already done it, please do so,” Purfeerst said of the flu vaccine. “A number of community resources can help with that, whether it’s a healthcare provider or a pharmacy. All have the common goal of encouraging people to get vaccinated.”
Getting the flu vaccination doesn’t just protect the one who received the vaccine, Purfeerst explained. It also prevents the spread of the flu to those who could experience severe complications.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health’s weekly influenza and respiratory illness activity report, there were 4,022 hospitalized influenza cases and 153 deaths during the 2019-20 flu season. There have been eight hospitalized with influenza and zero deaths in Minnesota from Sept. 27 to Nov. 14 this year.
In Rice County, MIIC reported 22,184 individuals received flu vaccinations from July to Nov. 15, 2019. However, that count is down by 870 with 21,311 vaccinations during the same timeframe this year. That’s 28% of the total Rice County population last year and 27% of the population this year.
Steele County also experienced a decrease in vaccinations with 12,165 vaccinations from July to Nov. 15, 2019 (27% of the population) down to 11,532 vaccinations this year (26% of the population). That’s 633 fewer vaccinations.
Three other counties in southeast Minnesota saw decreases in flu vaccinations: Goodhue County saw a decrease in 16,669 flu vaccines in 2019 to 15,540 this year, Dodge County’s decreased from 7,741 in 2019 to 6,929 this year, and Houston County’s dropped from 7,147 in 2019 to 4,052 this year. The percentage of those in the county who received flu vaccinations in Fillmore, Olmsted and Wabasha counties remained the same between 2019 and this year, and Freeborn, Mower and Winona counties saw increases.
Purfeerst said the best way to protect yourself and others against influenza is to get a flu vaccination every six months. The flu vaccine is available to anyone 6 months and older, and each community offers a number of opportunities for vaccinations. She advises individuals to first check with their regular healthcare providers, or to visit local pharmacies and local public health departments. If uninsured, public health departments can fill the gaps.
Rice County Public Health has offered scheduled “park and go” flu vaccinations Monday through Friday on non-holidays. The Rice County Government Service building is closed currently but still providing scheduled appointments along with flu vaccination forms to fill out online beforehand.
Steele County Public Health also makes appointments for vaccinations and has online forms in English and Spanish at bit.ly/3lYtywP.
Although the preventative measures that help individuals avoid the coronavirus, like washing hands, wearing a mask, staying home and social distancing, can fight against flu transmission as well, Purfeerst said there is no guarantee that these measures alone prevent influenza. In addition to getting the flu vaccination, she encourages eating a healthy and balanced diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
“Prevention is the first line of defense for any type of illness,” Purfeerst said. “Vaccines are one of those preventative measures. Currently we don’t have one for COVID, but we will, and we need to do what we can do to keep us healthy against diseases. We know hospitals are busy and full, and we don’t want to cause more unnecessary hospitalizations if there’s ways to prevent that.”
Safe and smart
Dr. Frank Rhame, infectious diseases physician at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis and the principal investigator for the Ensemble Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine, agreed that it’s more important than ever to get a flu vaccine in a COVID-19 world.
A simultaneous COVID-19 and influenza diagnosis is harsher than COVID-19 alone or influenza alone. Another more subtle reason is that health professionals ideally want to reserve COVID-19 tests to confirm actual coronavirus cases. If someone presents COVID-19 symptoms and yet tests negative, it could mean they have influenza instead. Therefore, if that person had taken precautions against influenza, it could have spared the use of a COVID-19 test.
Rhame theorized that the mass concern about getting COVID-19 has overshadowed concern about influenza and reminds Minnesotans that influenza is also a harmful disease, even if the coronavirus is worse.
Rhame also pointed out that healthcare workers take important precautions to protect anyone who steps inside a healthcare facility during the pandemic. Walk-in restrictions are in place, and patients can schedule their appointments in advance to narrow down their window of time at the facility. This reduces their chance of getting COVID-19 or giving COVID-19 to an employee. While staying at home is the safest option, Rhames considers healthcare facilities safer than a grocery store at this point.
As an update about the COVID-19 vaccine of which he is a principal investigator, Rhames said, “It’s way better than any of us would have dreamed” and will be more effective than influenza vaccines. He considers it of utmost importance to encourage individuals to get the vaccine when it becomes available, as it could save lives.