A dose of reality on flu season in the Tri-Cities and vaccinations

Now is the time to get your flu shot, says the Benton Franklin Health District.
Now is the time to get your flu shot, says the Benton Franklin Health District. Bradenton Herald

An Eastern Washington resident was hospitalized with the flu in Spokane last week.

While that doesn’t mean the flu season has begun in the region, it is time to get a flu shot, said Dr. Amy Person, health officer for the Benton Franklin Health District.

It is not unusual for sporadic cases to pop up at any time of the year, as travelers nationally and internationally can carry the virus into the Tri-City area, she said.

No cases have been reported in Benton and Franklin counties yet this year, and an increase of flu-like illnesses has not been seen in area emergency rooms.

But the time to get vaccinated is before an outbreak, Person said.

“It will show up,” she said.

The health district will have a better tracking method to watch for influenza this year under a new requirement that hospitals participate in Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics, or ESSENCE, Person said.

Possible flu cases will be reported electronically to the Washington State Department of Health as hospitals gradually add the reporting system.

Currently, most reporting of influenza cases is voluntary.

Here’s what you need to know about the flu this year:

Who should get a flu shot?

Flu shots are recommended for anyone six months and older, Person said.

“Flu shots are very important because influenza can be a serious or even deadly illness,” she said. “It is not the same thing as a cold or stomach flu.”

It can progress to pneumonia, she added, even in people who are healthy.

Vaccination is particularly important for children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, Person said. They may be at higher risk for a severe illness or complications.

It is also important for health care workers and people who spend time around those most vulnerable to influenza to get a flu shot, she said.

Getting a flu shot helps protect not only yourself, but your family and the community, she said.

When should I get a shot?

Most people can get a flu shot as soon as they become available in late summer or early fall, Person said.

Elderly people may want to get it in October, which is usually before the start of flu season in the Mid-Columbia. Their immunity may not last as long, and an October shot will help make sure they are protected through the flu season.

Flu season typically peaks after the first of the year in the Tri-City area — but not always.

“Flu does not really like to read the rules,” Person said. “It is predictably unpredictable.”

Influenza may start to show up after holidays or anytime people gather, either because crowds increase the opportunity for exposure or people out of the area are visiting and bringing the virus into the area.

Just don’t wait too long to get a flu shot, Person said.

The shot does not become fully protective for a couple of weeks.

What kind of flu shot should I get?

Each year a new flu shot is developed with different strains of the influenza virus as the virus continues to change from year to year.

Health officials don’t know what strain of flu may be most common, since the vaccine has to be manufactured before the flu season starts.

This year a trivalent vaccine with two A viruses and one B virus is available, plus a quadrivalent vaccine that offers extra protection with two strains of both A and B viruses.

High dose vaccines also are available for people 65 or older. They have four times the usual level of immunity-producing proteins.

As people age, their immune system weakens and they may benefit less than younger people from a standard flu shot.

A medical provider or pharmacist can help people decide which vaccine is best for them, Person said.

But can’t I get sick from the shot?

Some people who get the flu shot will develop a mild fever and soreness.

That’s a normal reaction for a body producing antibodies, Person said.

But it’s impossible to get influenza from flu vaccine, she said. It does not include live virus.

Where are shots available?

Many pharmacies and some health clinics offer flu immunizations.

You also can make an appointment at the Kennewick or Pasco office of the Benton Franklin Health District. Call 509-460-4200.

Veterans in the Tri-Cities can get a flu shot at no cost at the Veterans Administration Clinic in the Federal Building, 825 Jadwin Ave., Richland. A clinic is planned 3-5 p.m. Tuesday and 3-5 p.m. Oct. 17.

A drive-thru clinic for veterans also is planned in the Federal Building parking lot 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. Oct. 13.

What else can I do?

Use good health hygiene.

Wash hands frequently and before you eat. Cover your cough, and stay home if you are sick.

People at high risk of a serious illness who think they may have influenza should see a health care provider, Person said. They may benefit from medication.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews