Health experts say the flu vaccine appears to be well matched to circulating viruses this fall so far. (Shutterstock)

Health care providers urge flu shots to avoid twin outbreaks, overloaded system

Coronavirus pandemic makes need for vaccinations more urgent than ever

Clinicians are bracing for the fast approaching flu season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical providers are setting up drive-thrus and outdoor clinics, and indoor facilities also have implemented COVID-19 protocols to reduce people’s risk of exposure to the disease.

The biggest concern for some is that if flu takes off and the coronavirus continues, the health care system could get overloaded.

“So the worry is that with the onset of the flu season, you’re going to get peaks of flu and COVID-19 cases at the same time,” Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease expert at University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement. “Even with a mild flu season, the convergence with a COVID surge could very rapidly overwhelm our hospital system.”

In San Francisco, Kaiser Permanente Northern California is offering flu shots for its members through drive-thru and walk-up visits outdoors at University of San Francisco, Koret parking lot, from Sept. 14 through Nov. 6. Also, a drive-thru site at the South San Francisco Medical Center for flu shots will begin on Monday. Walk-in visits indoors at the San Francisco Medical Offices, Mission Bay, also will be available Monday.

“We want to make sure that people are protected before the flu season starts,” said Dr. Randy Bergen, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Kaiser Permanente Northern California. He noted that people who are concerned about exposure to poor air quality due to the wildfires and the risk of COVID-19 should call their medical providers for the latest updates and recommendations.

According to Bergen, the flu season in California generally starts around November and peaks in January. September and October are the best months to get a flu shot, as it takes about two to four weeks for the vaccine to develop protection. The vaccine’s protection lasts for six to nine months, he said, likely waning toward the end of that period. Even if people are not able to receive their flu shots between September and October, Bergen said, “It’s much better to do it than not [to] do it.”

He is hopeful that the flu vaccine will be well-matched to the circulating flu viruses this year.

“The flu virus is a moving target. It does change from year to year,” Bergen said. “So our vaccines have to change also. Because the production process takes six to eight months, the World Health Organization and other infectious disease experts around the world have to decide in January of the year what vaccines to produce and hope that the virus doesn’t significantly change by that fall.” There are some hints that the flu virus has not changed significantly since the beginning of this year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by 40 to 60 percent during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine, although the effectiveness of the vaccine also depends on the age and health of the person receiving the vaccination.

Even though people who are vaccinated can still be infected with the flu, clinicians know that vaccination can lessen the severity of illness. From 2018-19, it prevented roughly 4.4 million flu illnesses, 58,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 3,500 flu-related deaths.

“There are always more hospitalizations and deaths during flu season than in other parts of the year,” said Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care.

Kappagoda said the southern hemisphere, which has its flu season during our summer and often foreshadows what will happen in the northern hemisphere, had a lighter flu season this year than previously.

“So it is possible that it would be similar [in the U.S.]. But I don’t think we can make that assumption,” she said. “I think we have to be prepared to have a burdened health care system during flu season.”

Pharmacies also have begun providing flu shots. Walgreens announced in August that flu shots are available, with measures in place to safely administer shots during COVID-19. Walgreens officials said staff wear masks and face shields, take people’s temperature and screen for illness. Those who are ill are referred to their health care provider, with their vaccination deferred.

“I’m hopeful that the whole issue around how important it is to protect yourself from respiratory viruses will be even more on the forefront of people’s minds this year …” Bergen said. “We are prepared to vaccinate a lot more people [against the flu] than we ever have.”

nchan@sfexaminer.com

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