Last winter's flu season was remarkably mild, with a total of 35 hospitalizations through the week of May 22 —compared to more than 4,000 the year prior. The state also recorded just five influenza deaths, none of them among children.
But last year's good news could mean a challenging flu season in the months ahead, and medical experts are sounding the alarm. That includes Essentia Health, with the Duluth-based health system urging Minnesotans to get their flu shot sooner rather than later.
Dr. Aaron Phillipps, an infectious disease physician with Essentia Health, said in a release that the mild 2020-21 flu season was partly due to COVID precautions, such as social distancing, masking and less traveling. The resulting lack of flu cases though means there are "less people with boosted immunity this year," he said.
"And less immunity this year puts us at high risk for increased infections, hospitalizations and deaths.”
Phillipps is echoing what other medical and health experts have said. CNBC, the New York Times, CNN and others have spoken with doctors about the upcoming flu season. Here's how one expert put it to the Las Vegas Review Journal:
"People weren’t exposed [to influenza] last year ... So there’s a chance that their immune systems won’t be able to recognize the circulating strains this year, which could potentially mean that we may have more individuals who are readily infected.”
This, experts argue, underscores the importance of getting a flu shot this year. They are recommended for everyone 6 months and older.
As is always the case, the influenza vaccine doesn't guarantee you won't get the flu. But it does significantly reduce the chance it becomes severe or deadly.
In addition, better widespread protection against influenza means less demand on already stressed hospitals, who continue to deal with the COVID pandemic. Staffed ICU and non-ICU bed availability continues to be cause for concern, with many regions of the state reporting fewer than 10% of each type of bed available.
“If we can immunize a significant portion of our population against influenza, we can reduce hospitalizations, allowing us to keep resources available for COVID and other illnesses,” Phillipps said in the release.
The CDC recommends people get a flu shot in September or October, and preferably before the end of the latter. It takes about two weeks for your body to produce enough antibodies to reach the top-most level of protection.