Iowa could be in for a rough flu season this year, health officials say.
Seasonal influenza is unpredictable, but indicators show this year’s strain of the respiratory virus could be severe.
Coupled with declining diligence on mask-wearing and social distancing, public health officials and other health care providers say it’s important Iowans get their flu shot soon.
“It’s imperative they get the shot, because it really decreases the chance of having a very bad cold and flu season,” said Dr. Daniel Fick, chief medical officer at Hy-Vee.
To predict each year’s season, epidemiologists study how the virus spreads in Australia and the rest of the southern hemisphere, which experiences its 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 the average during that five-year period, and the country reached its peak roughly two months earlier than usual, according to government surveillance reports.
Iowa and the rest of the country “could easily see the same,” 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 family,” she said.
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In the latest phase of the pandemic, Iowans, for the most part, have also dropped coronavirus mitigation strategies that have kept influenza and other respiratory viruses at bay.
Less mask-wearing and social isolation this winter will help spread the flu, said Fick, who is also a family medicine physician with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
Fick encouraged Iowans to get their flu shot as soon as possible.
September and October are the “sweet spot” for individuals to get vaccines, Fick said. By the time the holidays arrive, they should be protected against severe illness.
Individuals may receive their flu shot at the same time as the new coronavirus booster shots, which were approved by federal health officials earlier this month.
Will the ‘twindemic’ come back this year?
Health officials have often warned about the repercussions of a “twindemic” — COVID-19 surges and flu happening at the same time — on the state’s health-care system.
However, Fick said that risk is less likely this year.
The state’s population has more immune protection, either through vaccination or prior infection, against the coronavirus than it did earlier in the pandemic. While the latest omicron variant still poses a risk to vulnerable groups, the new viral strain is less likely to cause severe illnesses.
Should a new, more severe variant emerge, the state’s health-care systems will be prepared to respond, Fick said.
“Neither a new strain of COVID-19 nor a bad strain of influenza is going to sneak up on us,” Fick said. “We will have weeks of notice and the ability to start ramping things back up.”
It is possible to be infected with COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, according to Polk County health officials, particularly when cases are high. If individuals are sick, they should contact their health care provider to be tested and to receive guidance on how to treat their illness.
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How many people died from flu last year?
Iowa reported 42 total flu deaths during the 2021-22 season, according to state surveillance reports.
That’s an increase from the 6 deaths in the 2020-21 season, which public health officials largely attribute to precautions taken because of the pandemic.
That compares with the 103 deaths in the 2019-20 season. In 2017-18, at least 270 Iowans died from the flu.
The US saw somewhere between 8 million and 13 million flu-related illnesses during the 2021-22 flu season, according to preliminary estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Federal health officials also reported as many as 170,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths.
What happened to flu vaccination rates during the pandemic?
The number of Iowans receiving the flu shot has fallen over the past two years, even as public health officials highlight the importance of vaccines.
Last year, 34% of the state population — 1,072,588 individuals — were vaccinated against influenza, a nearly 5 percentage point drop from the year before, according to data from the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.
The 2019-20 season saw the highest statewide vaccination rate over the past five years, with 40% of Iowans obtaining a dose.
Polk County reported 37% of the population received the flu vaccine last year, a drop from the nearly 44% who received the shot in the 2019-20 season.
Each year’s vaccine is formulated based on the prominent strains detected in the southern hemisphere. Even if it’s not exactly right, flu shots are effective against serious illness, Fick said.
“Vaccines decrease illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. “It won’t prevent an infection, but it gives your body and your immune system a heads up the virus is coming.”
Where can I get a flu shot?
Flu vaccines are recommended for all individuals aged 6 months and older.
Polk County Health Department began administering flu vaccines earlier this week. Appointments are required and available Monday through Friday from 9 am to noon and 1 pm to 4 pm
Individuals can schedule appointments at immunizepolk.com.
Polk County public health officials will be hosting community-based flu shot clinics throughout the Des Moines metro area in the next several weeks. A schedule of those clinics can be found at polkcountyiowa.gov/health-department/clinical-services/seasonal-flu.
Iowans can also receive a flu shot at their doctor’s office and at most major retail pharmacies, including Hy-Vee, which began offering vaccines last month.
According to officials, many Hy-Vee pharmacy locations are offering drive-thru flu shot clinics between Sept. 6 and Oct. 17. Appointments can also be scheduled in advance by visiting hy-vee.com/my-pharmacy/vaccine-consent.
What are the symptoms of flu?
According to the CDC, common symptoms of influenza include:
- So throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Body aches
Anyone can get sick from the flu, but those at higher risk for developing complications include the young, the old and those with certain chronic medical conditions, such as asthma.
Michaela Ramm covers health care for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at [email protected], at (319) 339-7354 or on Twitter at @Michaela_Ramm.