While the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues on the North Olympic Peninsula, health officials are urging residents to get vaccinated for influenza in order to avoid a combined flu and COVID-19 surge in late fall and winter.
The flu vaccine is already readily available at most pharmacies and health clinics that provide vaccinations.
“We’re strongly encouraging folks to get vaccinated against influenza, especially this year, because we are expecting a sixth wave of COVID in the fall and winter when people come indoors and gather, and we’ve seen how COVID alone can overwhelm the hospital system,” said Dr. Allison Berry, health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties.
“In prior years also, influenza would also nearly overwhelm the hospital system on a semi-regular basis. So, we really don’t need both of those at the same time.”
The flu season normally is considered to be during fall and winter, with case numbers peaking between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The flu vaccine does not protect against COVID-19, but it decreases the possibility of being hospitalized and potentially dying from influenza, the CDC states.
“Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exceptions,” the CDC states. “Vaccination is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications from influenza.”
Eligible residents can get a flu vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same appointment, Berry said. Currently, only residents 12 and older can get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Even with the vaccine, people should follow other disease-prevention protocols such as mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing, which help with both the spread of COVID-19 and the flu, Berry said.
“Last year we were really successful at basically stopping transmission of the flu with our physical-distancing measures,” Berry said. “This year I don’t think we’ll be as successful as last year.”
Berry predicts this flu season will be worse than last year, due to people gathering more regularly and because schools are in person full-time this year — compared with last year, when school districts were using various online and hybrid models — and schools contribute heavily to influenza transmission, she said.
“Unlike COVID-19, a large proportion of flu transmission is largely driven by children,” Berry said. “The closing of schools was a key factor in stopping transmission last year; now that schools are open, we’re expecting that there will be more flu.”
There is a misconception that getting a flu vaccine can give you the flu, Berry said.
While the vaccine is made to activate an immune response that can cause a slight fever or other mild flu-like symptoms in the immediate days after receiving the vaccine, people can not contract the flu virus from the vaccine, both Berry and the CDC said.
Individual flu cases are expected throughout the year, but no significant surge of cases was reported on the Peninsula in 2020, Berry said.
“I was not able to find any influenza cases in fall and winter of last year, above what we call ‘background levels,’” Berry said. “You’ll have sporadic cases of influenza all year round, but we did not have any above that level or near the levels that we’d normally see during a flu season.
“We really didn’t see any significant influenza activity.”
Another misconception regarding the flu vaccine is someone can’t get it if they are allergic to eggs, since many flu vaccines contain a small amount of egg proteins. However, the vaccine is safe for those residents to receive, although it’s recommended to receive it in a health care setting so officials can monitor the person in case of a possible reaction, Berry said.
More information on the flu vaccine can be found at the CDC’s website at cdc.gov/flu/season/index.html.