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By the Minnesota Council of Health Plans and the Minnesota Hospital Association

With most schools in Minnesota back in session, your student may finally be settling into that familiar, in-person school experience. That’s no small task, given the challenges families have faced with COVID-19.

But have you also thought about influenza, also known as the seasonal flu? Like COVID-19, the flu can cause serious illness, require hospitalization and lead to death. As kids gather in schools and more activities move indoors as the weather cools, it will be critically important for children, as well as adults, to get their flu shot.

Lesson 1: Impact of Influenza

Most adults and children as young as six months can get a flu vaccine. People most at risk of getting influenza include older adults, young children, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and asthma.

The flu shot, also available in a nasal mist, stimulates the immune system to recognize and attack the influenza virus. The vaccine is updated each year to provide the best match against the current virus strains. Recent studies show a well-matched vaccine can reduce the risk of flu illness by 40-60% in the overall population. Flu season in Minnesota typically lasts from October through March.

Given that COVID-19 is still a threat in Minnesota and elsewhere, getting the flu shot is more important than ever. That’s because hospitals and their intensive care units – many already experiencing an increase in patient visits due to the busy summer season and the COVID Delta variant – would likely be stretched more if influenza became widespread. Experts worried about such a “twindemic” scenario playing out last year. Thankfully, it never materialized, as U.S. flu infections were the lowest ever – thanks in part to the widespread use of masks.  However, there are renewed concerns about a resurgence of the flu and a subsequent twindemic this year, as mask-wearing has declined.

Influenza causes many of the same symptoms as COVID-19, including fever, headache, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue. In severe cases, the flu can cause pneumonia, bronchitis, ear and sinus infections. People with asthma could have an asthma attack and those with chronic congestive heart failure can be at risk of a heart attack.

But that’s not all. The flu can also weaken your body’s immune system, which could make you more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Lesson 2: Kids and the Flu Vaccine

So, are kids getting their flu shots? According to CDC estimates, just over 66% of children between the ages of six months and 17 years received vaccinations during the 2019-2020 flu season. That’s up from 62% two years earlier, but it still means more than 30% of eligible children are missing out. The good news? The flu vaccine is considered preventative care, which means it’s usually covered by your health plan through an in-network provider at no cost to you.

Flu shots are also widely available. You can visit your regular doctor, or you can get it at most pharmacies, clinics, retail clinics, public health offices – even many dental offices and workplaces.

Still on the fence about the flu shot? Maybe these facts will convince you to roll up your sleeve:

  • The flu shot can help you avoid getting sick with influenza, which can be deadly. That’s no small feat, considering each year anywhere from 12,000 to 61,000 people die from influenza each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.
  • You can’t get the flu from the flu shot, and the vaccine is safe.
  • Multiple studies have found the flu shot can keep you and your kids out of the hospital and the intensive care unit. That’s an incredibly important consideration, because hospitals here and throughout the country are feeling the strain from COVID-19 once again.

Talk to your doctor about the flu vaccine and whether you and your kids are up to date on this vital immunization. COVID-19 is still with us, which means preventative care – including flu shots – can help keep families and communities healthy.