As flu cases surge in the state, CDC and infectious-disease doctor at UK urge Kentuckians to get vaccinated

By Melissa Patrick

Kentucky Health News
As cases of influenza continue to surge in Kentucky, an infectious-disease doctor says the best way to protect yourself, your loved ones and your community is to get the annual flu shot.

“I think the most important message is that the best tool we have is vaccination,” said Dr. Nicholas Van Sickels, an infectious-disease specialist at UK HealthCare. “It will prevent you from getting very sick or ending up in the hospital. It will help protect your community. That’s the biggest thing I can stress this season. . . . It’s not too late. If you haven’t’ gotten it, go get it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated every flu season. And because it takes up to weeks for protection to develop after getting the vaccine, so the sooner you get it the better. Flu season runs from October to May.

The good news is that this year’s flu vaccine is “pretty well matched” to the dominant flu strain that is circulating, Van Sickels said. That strain, H3N2, is known to affect young children and seniors more severely. He added that even if the vaccine were not well matched to the circulating strain of the virus, it would still offer protections from severe flu illness and death.

“So it’s an important tool . . . especially if you have chronic medical conditions or are around someone with chronic medical conditions, which really is all of us,” because we all interact with people in public, he said. “So the more of us to get vaccinated, the less flu is transmitted, the less people get sick and end up in the hospital, like we’re seeing now.”

Van Sickels said a common misconception is that the vaccine can give you the flu, but he said that can’t happen because the vaccine is not made with a live virus.

“There are all kinds of viruses circulating, so you might have gotten sick coincidentally with your flu vaccine, which can lead to an association in your brain, but it can’t give you the flu,” he said. “It’s a very safe vaccine for children and adults.”

He also encouraged people over 65 to ask their provider if they qualify for the high dose flu vaccine. He said this is important because the higher dose vaccine gives seniors an extra boost of protection that is needed because our immune system ages along with our bodies and becomes less effective as we get older.

There are also several anti-viral drugs that can be given when you get the flu that can reduce the duration of illness by several days and prevent severe flu complications, but they are best when taken within 48 hours of onset of flu symptoms. Van Sickels noted that these drugs do not replace vaccination.

“If you have chronic medical conditions, severe lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, if you’re living with HIV or other conditions and you get sick with the flu, I would recommend calling your doctor and seeing if you qualify for it,” he said.

Van Sickels also encouraged Kentuckians to get the flu vaccine and the Covid-19 booster at the same time.

“It is perfectly safe to get the new Covid booster and the flu vaccine together,” he said. “Not a lot of people in our country and in our state have been vaccinated with the new booster. So I would strongly encourage it.”

On Monday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also urged people to get their flu vaccination and Covid-19 booster amid the extremely high levels of respiratory viruses that are circulating.

“Both the updated COVID-19 vaccines and this year’s flu vaccines were formulated to protect against the viruses that are currently circulating right now,” Walensky said. “And recent data from CDC show updated Covid-19 vaccines help protect against Covid-19 illness and Covid-19-associated deaths. Early surveillance shows that people who receive their updated COVID-19 vaccine this year were nearly 15 times less likely to die from Covid-19 compared to people who are not vaccinated.”

The state’s latest flu report shows that flu activity in Kentucky continues to rise. In the week ending Nov. 26, the state confirmed 6,378 cases of the flu, up from 3,470 the prior week. So far, the total number of confirmed cases during this flu season is 15,909. Thirteen Kentucky adults and one person under the age of 18 has died from the flu this season, which runs from October to May.

It’s important to remember that the state surveillance system only includes lab-confirmed cases and does not require providers to report results from rapid-flu tests, which means that this rate is likely much higher than is reflected in the state report.

Click here to find out where to get a flu vaccine near you and Click here to find Covid-19 vaccinations and boosters near you.

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