Health officials say Iowa could have a tough flu season this year.
Seasonal flu is unpredictable, but indications are that this year’s strain of the respiratory virus could be severe.
With mask-wearing and social distancing efforts waning, public health officials and other healthcare workers say it’s important for Iowans to get a flu shot soon.
Hy-Vee’s chief physician Dr. “It’s imperative that they get the shot because it reduces the chance of having a really bad cold and flu season,” Daniel Fick said.
To predict each year’s season, epidemiologists study how the virus spreads in Australia and the rest of the southern hemisphere, which experiences flu season before the United States.
As of this month, Australia is nearing the end of its worst flu season in five years. Cases were about three times higher than average during that five-year period, with the country peaking about two months earlier than usual, according to government surveillance reports.
Iowa and the rest of the country “could easily see the same thing,” said Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy.
“Our community should take this information seriously and get a flu shot to protect themselves and their families,” he said.
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In the latest phase of the pandemic, Iowa has also tossed out coronavirus mitigation strategies that, for the most part, keep flu and other respiratory viruses at bay.
Wearing fewer masks and social distancing this winter will help spread the flu, said Fick, who is also a family physician at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Fick encouraged Iowans to get a flu shot as soon as possible.
September and October are the “sweet spot” for individuals to get vaccinated, Fick said. Until the holidays, they should be protected from serious diseases.
Individuals can get the flu shot at the same time as the new coronavirus booster shots approved by federal health officials earlier this month.
Will ‘Twindemic’ make a comeback this year?
Health officials have often warned about the impact of a “twin pandemic” — co-occurring COVID-19 and the flu — on the state’s health care system.
However, Fick said the risk is lower this year.
The state’s population has more immunity to the coronavirus than before during a pandemic, either through vaccination or prior infection. Although the latest omicron variant still poses a risk to vulnerable groups, the new strain of the virus is unlikely to cause severe disease.
If a new, more severe variant emerges, the state’s health systems will be ready to respond, Fick said.
“Neither a new strain of COVID-19 nor a bad flu strain is going to sneak up on us,” Fick said. “We’ll have weeks of notice and an opportunity to start ramping things up again.”
According to Polk County health officials, it’s possible to get both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, especially when cases are high. If individuals are ill, they should contact a health care provider for testing and guidance on how to treat their illness.
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How many people died from the flu last year?
Iowa reported 42 total flu deaths during the 2021-22 season, according to state surveillance reports.
This is an increase from 6 deaths in the 2020-21 season, which is attributed to precautions taken by health officials due to the pandemic.
This compares to 103 deaths in the 2019-20 season. At least 270 Iowans died from the flu in 2017-18.
According to preliminary estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US will see 8 million to 13 million flu-related illnesses during the 2021-22 flu season.
Federal health officials also reported 170,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths.
How did flu vaccination rates fare during the pandemic?
Although public health officials stress the importance of vaccinations, the number of Iowans receiving flu shots has declined over the past two years.
According to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services, 1,072,588 people — 34% of the state’s population — received the flu shot last year, down about 5 percentage points from the year before.
The 2019-20 season saw the state’s highest vaccination rate in five years, with 40% of Iowans receiving a dose.
Polk County reported that 37% of the population received a flu shot last year, down from about 44% who were vaccinated during the 2019-2020 season.
Each year, a vaccine is developed based on prominent strains found in the southern hemisphere. Even if it’s not correct, the flu vaccine is effective against serious illnesses, Fick said.
“Vaccines dramatically reduce morbidity, hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. “It won’t prevent infection, but it alerts your body and immune system that a virus has arrived.”
Where can I get the flu shot?
Influenza vaccination is recommended for all individuals over 6 months of age.
The Polk County Health Department began offering flu shots earlier this week. Appointments are required and are available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Individuals can make an appointment at immunizepolk.com.
Polk County public health officials will host community-based flu clinics throughout the Des Moines metro area over the next few weeks. A schedule of those clinics can be found at polkcountyiowa.gov/health-department/clinical-services/seasonal-flu.
Iowans can also get a flu shot at their doctor’s office and most retail pharmacies, including Hy-Vee, which began offering the shots last month.
Many Hy-Vee drugstore locations are offering flu shot clinics from Sept. 6 through Oct. 17, officials said. Appointments can also be scheduled in advance by visiting hy-vee.com/my-pharmacy/vaccine-consent.
What are the symptoms of the flu?
According to the CDC, common symptoms of the flu include:
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
Anyone can get sick from the flu, but those at higher risk of developing complications include the young, the elderly, and those with certain chronic conditions, such as asthma.
Michaela Ramm covers health care for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at [email protected], (319) 339-7354 or @Michaela_Ramm on Twitter.