BRISTOL, Va. — Flu season is here, and local health officials hoping to prevent another deadly season like the last one are advising everyone to get a flu shot.
“Getting a flu vaccine is one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your community against the flu,” said Breanne Forbes Hubbard, population health coordinator for Mount Rogers Health District. “Widespread coverage of the vaccine also protects those who cannot get the vaccine themselves, including infants under 6 months old, and those who are at high risk for complications from the flu, including young children, older people, pregnant women, and people with chronic illnesses.”
As of Friday, Virginia has had no reported cases of the flu. Tennessee has tested 290 specimens across the state, but none has tested positive.
Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. There are two main types, A and B. Each includes many strains that tend to change from year to year, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Hubbard said flu season varies each year, but the viruses are most common in the fall and winter months. She said activity typically begins to increase in October and November and usually peaks by February, though it can go as late as May.
In Virginia last year, flu became widespread during the week of Dec. 2 and remained that way until the week of March 31, according to the state health department. Last year was the deadliest year for flu in Southwest Virginia, where three children died.
It was worse in Tennessee, which saw a spike in the middle of January 2017, with 115 people testing positive in one week. Numbers remained high until the beginning of March. In total, 10 children died from the flu, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
“Last year was a particularly severe year,” said Dr. Andrew Stephen May, regional medical director for the Sullivan County Regional Health Department. “It was the worst flu year since 2006. We really don’t want that to happen this year.”
Everyone is vulnerable, including those who are healthy. Some are at a higher risk, including those over 65 years of age, children under 5 and those with existing illnesses or certain health conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are some steps to take to prevent the flu from spreading.
“Washing your hands, covering your coughs and sneezes into your elbow, keeping your hands off your face, and avoiding people who are sick are also important ways to prevent flu,” Hubbard said. “If someone does have the flu, they should stay home from work, school, and community activities to avoid passing the virus to others.”
The best way to prevent getting the flu is to get vaccinated. The flu vaccine, delivered in a shot, enables the body to develop antibodies that prevent the flu, according to the CDC. It is normal for people to experience soreness, have a low grade fever or muscle aches, but that is not the flu.
Along with the typical shot, there is a skin-deep vaccine that uses tiny needles and a needle-free injector that shoots vaccine through the skin. A couple of vaccine brands are made for those 65 and older with one a high-dose version containing four times the usual anti-flu ingredient and another containing extra immune-boosting compounds, the CDC said.
A nasal mist, which was discontinued in 2017, was brought back this year. FluMist was taken off the shelves in 2016 because the CDC said the mist no longer worked to protect children against the virus. But new research was presented this year, and the formula was tweaked, leading the CDC to approve the nasal mist for the 2018-19 flu season.
Most flu vaccinations are covered by insurance companies, often without a copayment. Out-of-pocket costs could range between $32 and $40.
Flu shots are available in a variety of locations around the region. Health departments in the Mount Rogers Health District, which includes locations in Bristol, Washington, Smyth, Wythe, Bland, Grayson, Carroll and Galax, offer flu shots between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome.
In Sullivan County, vaccines are running low at the Health Department, but there is plenty of vaccine at primary care physicians’ offices and local drug stores.
“The other big point to make is if you are sick, stay home,” May said. “Don’t spread it to your friends and co-workers. Prevention is still the best key.”