It’s that time of year to start making plans to get a flu shot, and state and local health officials say that between the COVID-19 pandemic and flu season, it’s more important this year than ever to get vaccinated.
The flu shot does not protect against COVID-19 and there is not yet a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, but health officials are urging people to get the flu vaccine as they seek to avoid a "twindemic" of both influenza and COVID-19.
“If you get your flu shot, you can be protected against the flu, so if you were to get COVID, then you don't have to worry about having them both at the same time which could just make the illness from either one much more severe,” said Cindy Farr, Missoula City-County Health Department's COVID-19 Incident Commander.
There are hospitalizations and deaths from the flu every year, and a simultaneous surge of flu and COVID-19 cases could strain healthcare infrastructure, Farr said.
“The fewer people who get the flu, the less chance that we’re going to get severe cases of the flu, and that’s what’s going to continue to keep ... our hospital beds open for people who end up with COVID,” Farr said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the state and Missoula City-County health departments, are advising people to start getting their flu shots now, saying the best time to get vaccinated is in September or October. The CDC recommends that all people age 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every year.
Colleen Morris, immunization services manager for the Missoula City-County Health Department, said she expects the county’s Immunizations Clinic to have enough flu shots this year with the 2,000 doses it ordered, although Morris noted that order was made before the onset of COVID-19.
Morris said the county has not ordered supplemental vaccines because “most flu vaccine orders are pre-booked back in November to January of the previous flu season.”
In the U.S., flu vaccines are produced by private manufacturers, and each year the CDC purchases flu shots and disseminates them to state and local immunization programs, many of which also buy doses on their own. Pharmacies, healthcare providers, and other places that offer flu shots also order their own supply.
According to the CDC, manufacturers have projected they will provide as many as 194 to 198 million doses for the 2020-21 season, which is more than the 175 million dose record set during the 2019-2020 flu season.
The county also gets some of its stock from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Immunization Program, which are reserved for people who are uninsured or under-insured, Morris said.
Jon Ebelt, of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the agency also put in orders for publicly supplied flu vaccines in February, prior to COVID-19, but said the state increased the amount of publicly supplied adult vaccines in late spring.
The concern about a “twindemic” this year led the CDC to order 9.3 million supplemental flu vaccines for uninsured adults, compared to the 500,000 doses it has typically ordered for the same group in previous years. The CDC also allocated $140 million to state immunization programs across the country this year to scale-up flu coverage for vulnerable populations.
Ebelt said Montana has received $359,041 from the money the CDC gave to health departments.
“It will be used for flu vaccination awareness, education, and then we will fund our local health jurisdictions and other partners for planning additional flu vaccination clinics,” Ebelt said in an email.
Morris said she told DPHHS that Missoula County would be interested in obtaining more flu vaccines if the state receives shipments from the CDC. She also said Missoula County is on a list to get more flu shots if and when they are available, though she has “no idea how many that’s going to be and what that’s going to look like.”
Meanwhile, one of the manufacturers the county orders from, called Sanofi, told Morris that their regular flu vaccine is on back-order, according to Morris.
“Everybody pre-books it in January and it gets finalized at the end of January, beginning of February, so then it’s all accounted for,” Morris said. “They really use it all up and it looks like there’s probably not a lot of extra floating around.”
To date, Missoula County has received about 1,000 of the doses it ordered, and expects more shipments throughout the season.
Residents must make an appointment by calling 258-3511 to get a flu shot at the department’s immunization clinic due to COVID, but Morris said the appointment-only process has been more efficient. The department accepts most insurances and has a sliding fee scale for people who are uninsured or under-insured.
Flu shots are also available at many local health care providers or pharmacies, including Albertsons Grocery, where people can walk in or make an appointment.
Nikki Price, director of pharmacy operations for Albertsons, said COVID-19 was beginning to spread in the U.S. as the chain was ordering its supply of flu shots.
“COVID was hitting about the time we were ordering so there’s definitely an impact of that,” Price said. “At that time obviously, we didn’t know exactly what the impact would be, but we definitely ordered in anticipation of that.”
The Missoula City-County Health Department is also hosting a handful of free drive-thru flu clinics in Frenchtown, Bonner, Clinton, and Seeley Lake. People must pre-register by calling 258-4966. All out-of-pocket costs will be covered by the Caring Foundation of Montana's Care Van, although those with insurance are encouraged to bring their card.
The clinics will be held at Frenchtown Rural Fire Station 1 at 16875 Marion Street in Frenchtown from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 24 , at Bonner School District Parking Lot at 9045 Hwy 200 in Bonner from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 25.; at Clinton Market at 20500 Old Hwy 10 in Clinton from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Oct. 1; and at Seeley-Swan High School at 456 Airport Rd in Seeley Lake from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Oct 2.
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