The looming flu season has strengthened collaboration between Olmsted County, Mayo Clinic and Olmsted Medical Center, with a new campaign to encourage vaccinations.
“It’s not really important who gives the flu shot,” Olmsted County Public Health Director Graham Briggs said Wednesday, announcing a combined effort to encourage local residents to get a flu shot. “It’s important who gets the shot this year.”
Health experts are concerned that the inability to easily distinguish between flu and COVID-19 symptoms could overwhelm testing and treatment sites if outbreaks of the two illnesses happen at the same time.
“Your health care provider is not really going to be able to tell the difference between these two diagnoses,” said Carole Nistler, an Olmsted Medical Center family practice physician.
The one difference is a vaccine is available for the flu, also known as influenza.
“If you had a flu shot, that means you are less likely to have influenza, it means you are less likely to have the symptoms, it means you’re less likely to need to call us to be sent over to have your nasopharyngeal swab done to be tested for COVID,” Nistler said. “All of that is to your benefit.”
Here are a few things to know about flu shots and the upcoming season:
1. There’s plenty of the flu vaccine.
“There have been no supply issues, so everybody who wants a flu vaccine should be able to get a flu vaccine this year,” said Priya Sampathkumar, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist.
She said that covers both the traditional injections and the nasal mist, for those who are eligible to receive it.
2. Protection isn’t immediate, so plan ahead.
Flu season in Minnesota has been starting as early as mid-December in recent years.
“Getting the flu vaccine at least by the end of November is a good idea, because it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to induce immunity in the person who gets it,” Sampathkumar said.
There are a variety of locations available to receive vaccines, including Mayo Clinic sites by appointment, an OMC drive-thru service and local pharmacies and some grocery stores.
3. It’s never too late to get a flu shot.
While the flu season typically winds down by the end of March, it can continue through late May. As a result, Sampathkumar said a flu shot any time between fall and spring provides potential benefits.
“There’s no magic time that if you don’t get it, it’s too late and you should wait for next year,” she said.
4. Vaccinations protect community.
In addition to avoiding potential conflicts with a COVID outbreak, Briggs said the flu vaccine also reduces the risk of passing the flu to someone else.
“If we are looking at this as another way we can be a community together, I can protect you by wearing a mask,” he said. “I can protect myself by getting a flu shot, but I can also protect the community by not putting myself at risk of spreading the flu.”
5. High-dose vaccines offer added protection.
Designed for people 65 and older, high-dose vaccines have included limited strains of the flu.
“This year, for the first time, the high-dose flu vaccine will have all four strains of the virus,” Sampathkumar said, noting that it's added protection for a vaccine that already is designed to provide a stronger immune response.
6. Vaccines provided at various locations are similar.
Whether it’s at a medical facility, a pharmacy or a grocery store, the vaccines offered should provide the same coverage.
“You may get different brands at different sites, but they are all licensed vaccines, and they all contain the same viruses,” Sampathkumar said.
7. Other protections should already be taken.
Nistler cited several measures that can be taken to avoid the flu, but added that people should already be doing them to ward off COVID-19.
They include routine hand-washing, avoiding close contact with others, covering your nose and mouth when in public, covering coughs, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, and monitoring symptoms.
She said addressing chronic health conditions can also help reduce risks related to the flu.