Health officials: There's still time to get flu shots
WILLMAR -- There's still time to get vaccinated against seasonal flu and the H1N1 novel influenza virus, and there's still vaccine available.
This double message is being urged by state and local health officials on the eve of the Minnesota Department of Health's annual "Ban the Bug" campaign, which runs next week.
Although local influenza activity has waned dramatically, the state Health Department is warning that a third wave of the H1N1 virus is possible. Minnesota also is moving into the time of year when seasonal flu is most likely to occur.
"No one can predict. It can change in a minute," said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers.
ACMC and Family Practice Medical Center are continuing to provide seasonal flu shots to their established patients until the supply runs out. Both clinics also have adequate supplies of the vaccine for H1N1, often called swine flu.
"It's never too late to get a seasonal flu shot," said Stacey Zondervan, patient services director at Family Practice Medical Center.
"I would en-courage everyone to seek out the seasonal vaccine."
At ACMC, a hotline for making flu shot appointments remained busy all through the holidays, DeBruycker said.
"We certainly have seen significant interest in both vaccines," she said. "We continue to vaccinate with both."
Health officials are emphasizing that vaccination is especially important for people who are at greater risk for severe illness or complications from influenza.
For seasonal flu, this includes infants and young children, their caregivers, pregnant women, older adults and anyone with underlying medical conditions.
For the H1N1 virus, the priority groups are all children and young adults ages 6 months to 24 years, pregnant women, caregivers of infants younger than 6 months, and adults ages 25 to 64 who have chronic medical conditions.
Both vaccines are recommended as well for health care workers, especially those who care directly for patients.
Also, children under age 10 who haven't yet received their recommended second dose of the H1N1 vaccine should do so now, state health officials said. There's a waiting period of 28 days between the first and second doses.
Although the H1N1 vaccine initially was limited to the priority groups, it's now open to anyone who wants to be vaccinated.
DeBruycker said she still hears from people who think they're not eligible to receive it. "There are no restrictions for ages anymore," she said. "It's broadened for everyone now."
H1N1 activity peaked in October. At its height there was widespread illness, mainly among children, teens and young adults. Some area schools saw significant absenteeism and there were several hospitalizations among young people who became extremely sick with the H1N1 virus.
"That was a really rugged time," DeBruycker said.
But since mid-December, ACMC's Willmar clinic, which is a sentinel site for the state Health Department's influenza surveillance program, has had no positive cultures for flu, she said.
Family Practice Medical Center has seen the same thing, Zondervan said. "It's been pretty quiet on the flu horizon here," she said.
Health officials don't want people to be lulled, however, into thinking they can skip the seasonal and H1N1 vaccines.
Seasonal flu in Minnesota can peak at any time between January and March and can hang around until April, Zondervan said.
"That's a very real concern, that people are going to decide not to get vaccinated," she said. "They should be coming in."
Even if you've already been sick with a flu-like illness, you can't be sure it was H1N1 unless it was culture-confirmed, she said. "Don't assume you had H1N1 unless it was confirmed by a laboratory test by the Department of Health."
For people who don't have an established medical provider, several pharmacies and public health agencies are offering flu shots. A complete schedule is available on the state Health Department Web site at www.mdhflu.com.