OWATONNA — Monday may mark the first official day of autumn, but it also serves as the first day that local health officials are urging people to start preparing for perhaps the most daunting time of year: flu season.
Jennifer Heath of the Minnesota Department of Health said earlier this week that flu season could begin anytime and urged people to get their flu shots as soon as possible. She stated that if more people would get immunized then fewer would get sick — even those who don’t get vaccinated.
“Of course the flu shot is not just about protecting ourselves, but protecting the people we’re around,” agreed Amy Caron, the Steele County Public Health Director. “Our vulnerable population — the very young and the very old — don’t have immune systems as strong as healthier adults, so it’s important to think a little further beyond just protecting ourselves.”
Steele County Public Health is still waiting on its influenza vaccination supply, though many pharmacies and health clinics have already received their shipments. Caron stated that the fact that a Walgreens or a Mayo Clinic are part of a giant bulk order for several locations could be why they have already received their supply, while Public Health only orders a bulk shipment for its one location.
“We’re looking at maybe the second week in October to hold our flu shot clinics,” Caron said, adding that the end of September to about the middle of October is considered the cusp of flu season. “Getting your vaccine in the next three to four weeks would be ideal. Some seasons we have a worse outbreak than others, but we can’t predict that. So it’s best to just try to protect yourself.”
According to MDH, the vaccine was only about 50% effective during the last flu season. In Minnesota, 2,522 people were hospitalized with confirmed influenza and 126 influenza-related deaths were reported in the state, including two children. Caron said that in Steele County the flu season was “about average” compared to previous years.
“We always hit a peak at some point in the season and it was a little bit later of a peak last year,” Caron added. “That does relate to when people get their flu shot, but we don’t always know when that peak is going to be either unfortunately.”
Caron added that there are many people who contract influenza who don’t present it at an emergency room or with a health care provider, leaving those cases undocumented. She stated that if you were to have influenza that there would be no question about it.
“It hits you like you’re running into a brick wall, it hits you fast, and it hits you hard,” she said. “And that’s for healthy adults, which is why we’re really cautious of our really vulnerable people out there. Having influenza can lead to more serious conditions like pneumonia and other secondary infections that can be dangerous.”
According to Caron, there are many people who confuse influenza with the stomach flu simply because they do not realize what the “flu shot” is actually vaccinating for. The true flu is caused by the influenza virus and causes mostly upper respiratory problems, whereas the stomach flu can be caused by a number of viruses that leads to mostly gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting.
“When you say ‘the flu’ that’s just what people think,” Caron said in reference to the stomach flu.
The influenza vaccine takes about two weeks to be effective and Caron said that it doesn’t necessarily protect the individual from all the different strains that exist. Because the vaccines usually start to be developed in the early spring, Caron said that there is a bit of a gamble when it comes to selecting which strain to target.
“We do encourage those 65 and older to try to get a high dose vaccine,” she added. “Those tend to have more strains in it so it protects you from a few more than just a regular dose would.”
While Caron confirms that an individual can still contract influenza despite receiving the flu shot, she stated that it likely is a more mild case than if the person was completely unprotected. She also asserted that getting the flu shot does not give the patient the flu.
“There’s no scientific evidence that you can get influenza from getting the vaccine,” she said. “If you do get sick immediately following the shot, you likely had something coming on prior to receiving it.”
Steele County Public Health will be releasing the future dates of the flu shot clinics to the public once they have been scheduled. Questions can be directed to the Public Health office at (507)444-7650.