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Providers say now is the time to get regular flu vaccine

WILLMAR -- It might still be several weeks before a vaccine for the H1N1 novel influenza virus arrives in Minnesota. But local health providers are urging people to take early steps to protect themselves by getting vaccinated now against regular seasonal flu.

"That's a line of defense," said Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers. "We know there are people that are much more at risk of seasonal flu and they need to get on board."

The message took on added urgency Wednesday with the Minnesota Department of Health's announcement that influenza activity -- both of seasonal flu and the new H1N1, often called swine flu -- is widespread in Minnesota.

Partial shipments of seasonal flu vaccine have arrived at ACMC and at Family Practice Medical Center.

"We've been busy giving shots every day," said Stacey Zondervan, director of patient services at Family Practice Medical Center.

Her clinic has ordered 3,600 to 3,700 doses of the vaccine for the season. At ACMC, 33,000 doses of flu vaccine have been ordered for distribution among the regional multispecialty network's sites in eight communities.

The two clinics have been making the vaccine available to patients when they come in for doctor appointments. Patients also can call and schedule a separate time to receive the vaccine.

ACMC set up a special phone number this week for scheduling flu shot appointments.

"The word is getting out," DeBruycker said. "In fact we've gone through a high volume already."

For the second year in a row, local providers anticipate a record number of shots for seasonal influenza.

"Every year it goes up," DeBruycker said.

Who should get a seasonal flu shot? It's recommended for the very young, the old, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes or lung disease.

Anyone who wants to reduce the chance of getting sick with flu should consider being vaccinated, however, Zondervan said.

The push for people to start receiving seasonal flu shots is earlier than usual. Most years providers start making the vaccine available in October.

This year, with the prospect of additional vaccination needed against the H1N1 novel flu virus, providers want to get a head start with regular flu immunizations.

"The more we can immunize against seasonal flu, the more capacity we'll have to immunize against H1N1 as that becomes available," Zondervan said.

It has been confusing for the public, she acknowledged. "I think that's going to surround us for the entire season."

"It's almost like there's so much information, there's too much information," DeBruycker agreed.

It's known that influenza-like illnesses -- seasonal flu as well as the new H1N1 -- have been circulating in the region all summer.

At ACMC's Willmar site, which does influenza surveillance for the Minnesota Department of Health, there were two weeks during the summer when flu activity slowed, but "it ramped right back up," DeBruycker said. "It's maintained since then. That's all the more reason to get your seasonal vaccination now."

Zondervan said the situation is likely to remain fluid.

"From a community standpoint, there are plans in place that will make it run as smoothly as it's able to run," she said. "We'll be ready to respond when we have to."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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