Public health prepares for upcoming flu season, vaccines expected in coming weeks

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Flu season typically peaks between December and February but the nation’s public health system is already preparing for another flu season to be combined with an ongoing pandemic. Precautions used against COVID-19 will likely help keep flu cases low again this year, but state health officials still recommend annual flu vaccines when they become available in coming weeks. 

“We will have adult flu vaccine at the end of September or beginning of October,” said Mendy Spohn, a regional director for the Oklahoma State Department of Public Health. “We recommending getting it whenever and wherever you can.” 

One of the worst flu season in the state since at least 2009 occurred between 2017 and 2018, when 4,840 flu-related hospitalizations were recorded by OSDH. Since September 2020, the state has recorded 285 hospitalizations and 12 deaths, according to this week’s OSDH flu report.

Carter County COVID-19 vaccine tracker:34% of people fully vaccinated

Only two flu hospitalizations were recorded in Carter County in that time.

That local and state trend of extremely low incidence of flu in Oklahoma last year was mirrored nationwide despite high testing rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 1,700 of nearly 819,000 specimens tested by U.S. clinical laboratories – about 0.2% – were positive for an influenza virus. During the three flu seasons before the pandemic, between 26% and 30% of tested specimens returned positive for influenza.

How COVID-19 impacts flu season

While COVID-19 mitigation measures like face masks, school closures, reduced travel, social distancing and hygiene all likely contributed to the dramatic decline of flu incidence, hospitalizations and death, the CDC also reported a record high 193.8 million doses of influenza vaccines distributed during the 2020-2021 flu season. 

Vaccine manufacturers expect to supply between 188 million and 200 million doses of influenza vaccines in the U.S. for the 2021-2022 flu season. Many Americans with health insurance can get free flu shots from health care providers or retail pharmacies, and those without insurance can still find them starting at about $40. 

Spohn said county health departments will also provide free flu shots to children under the federal Vaccines For Children program. The program ensures children up to 18 years old can be vaccinated if they are uninsured or underinsured, including those eligible for or enrolled in Medicaid. 

While flu vaccines are promoted every year as summer ends and fall activities resume, the calls for public health safety are even more urgent as the COVID-19 pandemic puts continued pressure on the already beleaguered health care system. Along with vaccines to reduce case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 and influenza, public health officials say other mitigation efforts are also important and effective. 

“The precautions we use for COVID absolutely are helpful in reducing flu transmission,” said Spohn.