Flu shot seen as critical to public health in the North Bay during coronavirus pandemic

Sonoma County health experts say the influenza vaccine is even more important as an individual and collective health measure during the pandemic.|

Clinicians across the North Coast have already begun administering the latest influenza vaccine to patients in what health experts say is shaping up to be a critical period for immunization.

A bad flu season could add strain on hospitals and clinics already taxed by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding urgency to annual public health campaigns reminding people to get their flu shots ― and coaxing the reluctant or skeptical into getting vaccinated.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the county is drawing up plans for drive-thru flu shot clinics to increase the likelihood that more people will get vaccinated. In March and April, some local residents contracted both COVID-19 and the influenza, compounding their illnesses, according to Mase.

“We are strongly encouraging everybody to get the flu vaccine,” Mase said.

The flu vaccine is widely known to be safe and effective by health experts in dampening what can be devastating impacts of influenza, especially for the elderly and the young.

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness totally different from a common cold, and though it can result in mild illness, the flu can also cause nearly severe body aches and fever, among other symptoms like cough, sore throat and congestion.

Between 24,000 and 62,000 people died from influenza between October and April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The data is presented as a range because health surveillance systems do not capture all cases of the flu, and so the illness is thought to be far more prevalent than testing and hospitalization reports suggests. The CDC estimates between 39 million and 56 million people in the nation contracted influenza during that same time period between last fall and spring.

“The vaccine this year is going to be very important because when you layer flu and coronavirus pandemic ― that could take it to a surge,” said Dr. Gary Green, medical director of infection control at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital.

Influenza and COVID-19 are caused by totally different viruses, but the illnesses both commonly come on suddenly with fever and chills.

And for those who get Influenza, it has “a tremendous inflammatory effect on the body” which can make it difficult for that person to fight off COVID-19, according to Green.

Green cited research from Brazil, which is just emerging from its flu season, suggesting people who had received the influenza vaccine had higher chances of survival if they contracted COVID-19.

This year, the flu vaccine contains four strains, two for influenza A and two for influenza B. Green said that prior years had contained just two or three strains, and this year’s vaccine should provide added protections.

There also is a stronger dosage often given to people age 65 and older or to those with added vulnerabilities.

The influenza typically hits the East Coast first around September and then makes its way to the West Coast.

Green called late September or early October “the sweet spot” for getting vaccinated, though he has already been giving high dosage flu vaccines to elderly patients.

“We know protection for flu vaccine will wane over months,” Green said, adding that the Food and Drug Administration, which approves vaccines, has not provided data on how long the vaccine gives protection to the body. “The FDA has never asked, ’Will the antibodies last for six months?’ ”

While some people who get flu shots may still contract influenza, being vaccinated means the illness is likely to be far less severe, said Kathleen Sarmento, director of nursing at Santa Rosa Community Health.

Sarmento said patients often claim they got the flu after getting immunized ― and health providers are constantly trying to dispel that notion, which is unfounded.

As with face masks worn amid the pandemic, the flu shot is a critical public health safeguard that helps prevent the individual from getting sick or from spreading illness to others, she said.

“Keeping yourself healthy may help keep others healthy,“ Sarmento said. ”Get in here, get your flu shot. It will be so worth it to do this.“

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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