Flu shots are widely available in Arizona and state health officials are encouraging residents to get one as soon as possible.
Hospitals and providers this fall and winter are facing a flu season that coincides with the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The effect that convergence of contagious respiratory illnesses will have is impossible to know. But officials with the Arizona Department of Health Services say widespread flu vaccine coverage will go a long way in preventing bad outcomes, including an overwhelmed hospital system.
“It’s not too early to get your flu vaccine and we are encouraging everyone who can get a flu immunization to get immunized this year,” Dr. Cara Christ, Arizona Department of Health Services director, said this week.
“With COVID, we want to make sure people are taking every step that they can to prevent viral respiratory illness so that we can decrease hospitalizations and bad outcomes.”
State to launch a flu shot campaign
State health officials say they will be launching a campaign in the next couple of weeks encouraging Arizonans to get their flu shots.
“This year, it’s really important because we want to make sure we’re keeping people healthy and taking the strain off the health care system,” Christ said. “Usually, we’ll just roll out whatever the CDC’s campaign is, but this year, because of the importance, we will be rolling out an Arizona-specific campaign.”
Major pharmacy chains Walgreens and CVS confirmed to The Arizona Republic this week that they are already offering flu shots in their Arizona pharmacies, and that health providers giving the shots will be wearing personal protective equipment.
Dr. Andrew Carroll, a Chandler family practice physician, will be offering drive-thru flu shots to his patients this weekend. Carroll said he’s concerned about the prospect of having both COVID-19 and flu circulating at the same time.
He’s also worried about co-infections, where someone becomes infected with influenza, becomes rundown and then contracts the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Or vice versa, he said.
“We’re mostly concerned about people who get really sick and rundown and then get another illness on top of it,” Carroll said. “It’s really why we hope we get a vaccine against COVID soon. But in the meantime, we have a vaccine for flu and it is typically moderately effective.”
Carroll is encouraging his patients to get a flu shot as soon as they can.
Single COVID/flu test expected
Christ says getting one flu shot now should last the whole flu season. In Arizona, flu season can start as early as October. Typically, the heaviest time for flu in Arizona is January through March, but it can vary, Christ said.
“Last year, we had a really early and really heavy influenza season right off the bat,” Christ said. “You want to make sure you are getting your flu vaccine before the onset of the flu season so you can have the protection the vaccine provides.”
It takes about two weeks after a flu shot to build up an antibody response, Christ said.
Some of the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu overlap, among them fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and sore throat. Labs are working on rapid tests that will be able to test for both flu and COVID-19 at the same time, Christ said.
“It’s just one test and you’ll determine if it’s one of the big players,” Christ said. “They are hoping to have available for this flu season because we know the symptoms are the same and people are going to be presenting potentially with fever, difficulty breathing.”
Arizona’s flu vaccination rate lags
Influenza vaccine coverage among U.S. adults during the 2018-19 flu season was 45.3%. Arizona coverage was slightly lower at 42.6%, a 2019 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Similarly, pediatric influenza vaccine coverage in the U.S. was 62.6% in the 2018-19 flu season, while Arizona’s pediatric coverage was 55.9%, placing it 38 out of 50 states and below the national average, the CDC data shows.
COVID-19 activity has been slowing in Arizona and hospitalizations have declined in recent weeks, but it’s unclear if those improvements will continue through flu season.
“I would be ecstatic if COVID remained low and stayed like it is throughout the whole flu season,” Christ said.
“Everybody needs to keep doing what they are doing now because COVID is in the community and if we let up, if we stop wearing masks, if we start having huge gatherings, we could see an increase in our COVID numbers.”
If people continue wearing masks and practice physical distancing, it could end up having a positive effect on flu season, Carroll added.
“If you look at the Southern Hemisphere, if we look in Australia and New Zealand, their cases of flu were almost nil because the of mask wearing, the social distancing, the handwashing and the closing of businesses reduced the flu to almost undetected levels,” Carroll said.
Who can get vaccinated
Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exceptions, the CDC says, and vaccination is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications the flu, including people over the age of 65, pregnant women and children.
Manufacturers are making millions of extra flu vaccine doses to meet the anticipated demand for flu shots this season, Walgreens said in a news release.
Both Walgreens and CVS are offering a high dose vaccine for seniors, company officials said.
CVS is also offering a Flublok vaccine at MinuteClinic locations upon request for patients who have an egg allergy.
Most health insurance companies cover the cost of a flu shot, but there are other options for people looking for low-cost and no-cost immunizations, including community health centers.
The CDC recommends using VaccineFinder to locate places to get a flu shot: https://vaccinefinder.org/find-vaccine
The Arizona Partnership for Immunization has flu shot resources at: https://whyimmunize.org/
The Arizona Department of Health Services has a flu information page: https://www.azdhs.gov/preparedness/epidemiology-disease-control/flu/index.php#vaccine
Reach health care reporter Stephanie Innes at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes
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