HAYDEN — With the flu hitting North Idaho hard last season, health officials are reminding residents that the bug season is just around corner. They’re advising vaccine shots to protect yourself and those around you.
Thirty-seven of Idaho's 101 flu-related deaths during the 2017-18 season occurred in the Panhandle.
"Last season was difficult locally and nationally," said Jeff Lee, Panhandle Health District epidemiologist. "We experienced the longest season, the highest level of hospitalizations and the highest number of flu-related deaths in at least a decade."
Lee said the timing, severity and length of the season varies from one year to the next.
When asked if there are any indications this could another bad year for the flu, Katherine Hoyer, PHD spokeswoman, said it "very well could be."
"It is hard to make predictions, but there is a new subtype of influenza A (H3N2) and influenza B circulating," she said. "The current vaccine has been updated to protect against these two new subtypes. Many individuals in our area may not have any immunity yet to these."
Hoyer said PHD hasn’t started its flu surveillance program, but the agency has received several unconfirmed reports of individuals with the flu.
Flu activity often begins to increase in October and peaks between December and February. It then continues to spread through March or April.
"It's best to get your flu shot by the end of October, if possible," Hoyer said. "Getting vaccinated later can still be beneficial and we offer the vaccine throughout the flu season."
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness spread by a virus. Young children and the elderly are at greatest risk from flu and its complications.
PHD encourages everyone older than 6 months to get their flu vaccine, as that’s the best way to protect yourself.
You can also prevent the spread of illness by washing your hands often and avoiding people with cold or flu symptoms, Lee said. If you have flu symptoms, you should stay home to prevent spreading the virus to others. Also, cover your coughs and sneezes.
Hoyer said it takes about two weeks for antibodies that protect you from the flu to develop, so that’s why PHD is encouraging folks to get their shots now.
"Until a person has developed an adequate antibody level, they may still be vulnerable to infection with the flu," she said.
Flu shots are available at local pharmacies and at PHD in Hayden, 8500 N. Atlas Road.
Residents can walk in to the PHD clinic during the week without an appointment, come to the after-hours flu clinics every Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. from Sept. 20 to Oct. 25, or make an appointment at (208) 415-5100.
PHD offers a quadrivalent flu vaccine, meaning it protects against four different flu viruses, two influenza A viruses and two influenza B viruses. The quadrivalent flu vaccine provides a broader protection against circulating flu viruses compared to a trivalent vaccine, which protects against three flu viruses.
"You can receive your flu shot at almost any pharmacy now, but it is important to ask what vaccine they carry," said Kristina Meyer, PHD nurse manager. "Many grocery store pharmacies carry only a trivalent vaccine."
At PHD, medical insurance including Medicaid and Medicare Part B is accepted. Most insurances cover the cost of flu shots. For uninsured, a children’s flu shot is $20, and an adult flu shot is $23. High-dose flu shots are available for those 65 and older.
Last year's flu season was the deadliest for U.S. children in nearly a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency received reports of 172 pediatric flu deaths from October 2017 to May this year. That surpassed the 2012-13 flu season, when there were 171. An average season sees about 110.
The CDC doesn’t keep an exact count of adult flu-related deaths, but it has estimated there were 12,000 to 56,000 in recent seasons.
There were more deaths in 2009-2010, but that was when a rare flu pandemic occurred involving a new strain. More than 300 children died that season.
For more information on the flu, visit: www.panhandlehealthdistrict.org