WILLMAR -- Two recent influenza-related deaths in Minnesota have prompted a reminder from local health care providers to get your flu shot if you haven't already done so.
"Protection lasts for a long time, so you don't have to wait anymore. Any time is a good time," said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported Monday that two elderly women, both in their 80s, died this past month after coming down with in-fluenza.
One of the women was from southeastern Minnesota and the other lived in the metropolitan area. Both were residents of long-term care facilities. In both cases, the strain of influenza involved was A/H3, which can cause higher rates of serious illness, especially among the elderly, state health officials said. It's a switch from last year, when the prevailing strain was H1N1 2009, one that was more likely to hit young people.
"The thing we've learned about influenza season is the unpredictability of it," DeBruycker said.
Vaccination is recommended for all ages except infants younger than six months.
High-risk groups -- the elderly, young children, pregnant women and anyone with a chronic medical condition -- are especially urged to get annual flu shots. Vaccination also is urged for anyone who has contact with someone in one of the high-risk groups.
The vaccine supply this fall fortunately is plentiful. At Family Practice Medical Center, there's been a steady demand for flu vaccine, both during routine appointments and on a walk-in basis, said Stacey Zondervan, director of patient services.
"We're much further ahead of where we were last year at this time, simply because we started administering vaccine earlier," she said. "We've received almost 100 percent of our supply. That's a nice place to be."
Locations such as Walgreen's and the Cub Foods pharmacy are offering flu shots as well.
Although this year's flu vaccine formula includes an A/H3 strain, state health officials don't yet know if it matches the strain circulating in the nursing homes where the two deaths occurred this past month.
But health officials said they're bracing for what might be a difficult year for influenza among the elderly. Officials said this makes it especially important for those who work with or have contact with older adults to get vaccinated.
Not everyone with influenza has severe symptoms, DeBruycker noted. These people can mistake their illness for a cold or some other milder virus and unwittingly expose those around them to influenza, she said. "You might not be really sick, but you still have influenza and can transmit it to someone else in a much more severe form."
Flu vaccination also is urged for anyone who lives with or cares for an infant less than six months old, an age group that is too young to receive the flu vaccine.
The very young and the very old are the most vulnerable to severe illness and complications related to influenza.
At both the state and local levels, health officials are pushing flu vaccination with another important category: health care workers.
About 70 percent of health care workers in Minnesota receive annual flu shots. That's better than the national average, which is thought to be around 45 percent.
DeBruycker and Zondervan said they've been making the vaccine available to medical clinic employees and the majority are getting vaccinated.
The rate at ACMC this year will probably reach 86 to 89 percent of all employees, DeBruycker said. "It's heartening to see that. We have great physician participation. I think it's helpful for all other employees to see that being modeled."