By the Minnesota Council of Health Plans and the Minnesota Hospital Association
Influenza, or the “seasonal flu,” is a disease that can cause serious illness, even death. The flu shot has always been key in protecting ourselves against this infection – especially older adults, young children, pregnant women and those with chronic conditions – but the COVID-19 pandemic makes getting this vaccination even more critical for everyone this year.
Why? Aside from the immediate health risks associated with the flu itself, an influx of flu patients on top of COVID-19 cases – a “twindemic” — could potentially overwhelm hospitals and their ICUs. At the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak in spring 2020, more than 600 Minnesotans were hospitalized at the same time for COVID-19 treatment. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Health reports that the 2017-2018 flu season – a severe year for infections — resulted in more 6,000 hospitalizations throughout the state for the flu. Having a high level of hospitalizations for both COVID-19 and seasonal flu at the same time would stretch hospital and ICU resources.
The seasonal flu can present itself in many of the same ways COVID-19 does, with symptoms such as fever, headache, cough, sore throat, muscle aches and fatigue. In more severe cases, the flu can cause pneumonia, bronchitis and infections in the ears and sinuses. It can also make chronic health problems worse. If you have asthma, it can cause an asthma attack. If you have chronic congestive heart failure, it can increase your risk of a heart attack.
Additionally, having the flu can take a toll on the body’s immune system, leaving people more vulnerable to a serious bout of COVID-19. Contracting both infections could be even more harmful.
Flu vaccination rates in Minnesota — especially for children — were already in need of improvement before the pandemic. During the 2017-2018 season, nearly 62% of Minnesota children between the ages of 6 months and 17 years received vaccinations, according to CDC estimates, and the rates fell with age. For children 0.5-4 years old, it was 75%; for 5-12, 65%; and for 13-17, only 50%. Meanwhile, flu vaccination rates for adults in any given year are typically less than 50%.
That’s why this year presents an important opportunity for Minnesotans to do what they can to avert a bigger public health crisis. In addition to doing what we can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we can also reduce the number of influenza infections, hospitalizations and deaths by getting ourselves vaccinated against this disease.
Minnesota’s hospitals, health systems, clinics and health plans are already taking a number of steps to make getting critical vaccinations – including the flu shot – safer and easier during the pandemic.
A few important points to know:
- No immunization is more widely available than the flu shot. 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. UCare and Hennepin Healthcare, for instance, are teaming up to bring preventive and routine care on the UCare Healthmobile and flu shots on Hennepin’s vaccine bus to the community. Additionally, HealthPartners and Sanford Health are offering drive-up flu vaccines. For a quick and easy way to find the flu vaccine options near you, you can also use this website and search by your ZIP code.
- Minnesota’s hospitals and clinics have instituted a number of measures to protect patients coming in for visits, including enhanced personal protection equipment, universal patient screenings, surface cleaning, airflow improvements, hallway traffic management and the separation of patients into potential COVID and non-COVID groups. Many providers are also using drive-through clinics to better reach patients who have concerns about entering a health care facility due to COVID-19.
- Because the flu vaccine is considered preventative care, it’s usually covered by your health plan through an in-network provider at no cost to you. To find out for sure, you can call the number on the back of your insurance card. In addition, the Minnesota Vaccines for Children Program (MnVFC) offers free or low-cost shots for children 18 and younger. Check with your clinic to see if they participate in this program.
- The flu shot is safe. You can’t get influenza from the flu shot, so don’t let that be a barrier in getting vaccinated. Additionally, while false and misleading information still exists on the internet, vaccines have not been shown to cause autism. Any links between vaccines and autism have been thoroughly disproven.
By getting ourselves and our children immunized against the flu and other infections — and by continuing the important practices of hand-washing, mask-wearing and physical distancing — together we can create a new standard for disease prevention that will benefit us long after the pandemic passes.
Talk to your doctor about how and when to receive this year’s flu vaccine or click here to learn more facts about the flu. Stay healthy, Minnesota!