The most recent surge of COVID-19 has tapered off somewhat over the past few weeks, but with hospitals still seeing high occupancy rates because of the pandemic, health officials are urging the public to get vaccinated against influenza as the annual flu season gets under way.
Locally, Bear River Clinic (935 N. 1000 W., Tremonton, inside Bear River Valley Hospital) is hosting clinics on three Saturdays in October and two more in November where individuals and families can show up without an appointment, get a flu shot or nasal flu mist, and be on their way quickly.
Bear River Clinic has set aside time from 9 a.m. to noon on Oct. 9, 16 and 23, as well as Nov. 6 and 13, specifically for getting people immunized against the flu.
“We’ve beefed up our staff so families can come in, get it and leave,” Clinic Manager Connie Archibald said. “We’ve got enough staff to do a quick turnaround. People can come in as families, help each other out and have a really good experience.”
While last year’s flu clinics were done via a drive-through service, Archibald said this year the clinic has moved them inside the building just like it has done in previous years. Those who arrive for the Saturday morning clinics should enter through the main Bear River Valley Hospital entrance and proceed north to the clinic.
For those who want it, the COVID-19 vaccine will also be available and can be administered safely during the same visit for the flu vaccine.
“We can do the COVID vaccine in one arm and the flu vaccine in the other, if that’s what the patient wants,” Archibald said.
Every year as the weather cools and winter approaches, the flu begins spreading once again. Yearly vaccinations are needed to protect against it because the influenza virus mutates, requiring development of a new vaccine each time around.
While the majority of flu cases happen in January and February, the virus can also spread significantly in November and December, so experts say now is the time to get vaccinated against it so the body has time to build up immunity before the virus becomes widespread.
Getting the best possible protection against the flu is especially important this time around because of the persistence of COVID-19, which is keeping hospitals full and putting continued strain on local health care providers, according to Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of preventive medicine for Intermountain Healthcare.
“Just like last year, we are very concerned with so many cases of taking care of those who are very ill with another respiratory virus,” Sheffield said. “We don’t want to have a second (virus) that would be putting people in the hospital and filling up those beds and making them unavailable to those who need care.”
Health experts are concerned about increased spread of both viruses as cold weather arrives and drives people to spend more time indoors. Sheffield said the worry is even greater this year than last, as many people haven’t been as diligent this year about taking precautions to limit the spread of viral infections.
“We have a lot of individuals who are out and unmasked and gathering in big gatherings as well,” she said, “so we have much higher chance of passing the COVID virus as well as the influenza virus as we’re moving now into the indoor settings.”
While so much of the attention has been focused on COVID-19, she said it’s important to remember that the flu, which comes with many similar symptoms, can also be debilitating and even deadly. While the severity of flu outbreaks varies from year to year, it’s always a major public health concern.
Sheffield said last year’s flu season wasn’t as bad as usual due to COVID-related precautions and an extra push to vaccinate more people. But two years ago, the flu virus infected approximately 38 million people in the United States, required some 400,000 hospitalizations, and caused more than 22,000 deaths — and that was during a relatively mild season.
“This is a pretty bad actor, this virus,” she said.
Still, she said vaccinations in 2019 prevented 7.5 million cases, 3.7 million doctor visits, 100,000 hospitalizations and 6,300 deaths.
“The vaccine does reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths, so it’s really important this year, when we have our hospitals full, to reduce the number of influenza cases,” she said.
Most health insurance plans will cover the cost of the flu vaccine, and those who are uninsured can at least get vaccines for their children for no charge or a minimum fee.
Aside from the need to minimize the burden on local hospitals that may already be full, Sheffield said people should get a flu shot for their own peace of mind.
“If you get the vaccine, you know you’ve done everything you can to protect yourself, and to protect your loved ones around you,” she said.