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State pushes flu shots in bid to keep people out of hospitals

If flu cases and COVID-19 cases peak at the same time, it could mean almost 800 people in the hospital at one time, officials said.

The state of Delaware is urging Delawareans to get their flu shots this season partly because a mix of flu cases and COVID-19 could fill hospitals and strain the healthcare system.

In Gov. John Carney’s weekly COVID-19 press conference Tuesday, Carney said he was going to “take one for the team” by getting his flu shot during the press conference. He didn’t have to roll up his sleeves, though.

He wore a short-sleeve Delaware blue shirt from the state Department of Agriculture and a University of Delaware blue mask when he was stuck by Dr. Karyl Rattay.

“Ouch,” he said, then said that the shot didn’t really hurt.

“Flu season has officially started in Delaware,” Rattay said during her portion of the program. “With Covid-19 still with us, it’s more important than ever to get your flu vaccine.“

Last year, she said, more than 7,000 Delawareans were officially diagnosed with the flu through laboratory testing. Only a fraction of people who get the flu are officially tested and many more thousands have it.

During the last flu season, which stretches from about Oct. 1 into the spring, 400 people were hospitalized and 11 died, Rattay said.

“Every year when we get to the peak of our influenza season, our healthcare systems are maxed out,” Rattay said. 

“If we have a normal flu season, we can have hospitalizations in the 400 to 500 range,” Carney said. “The high point at hospitalizations for COVID-19 was at 337. Today we’re at 64.”

If a peak number of flu cases occurs during a surge of coronavirus cases, which are expected as the weather cools and people begin to move activities indoors, hospitals could be overwhelmed.

Already, the state is seeing the number of coronavirus cases tick up, with a 7.2 percent positive rate over seven days. The state wants that below 3 percent so that schools and businesses can fully reopen.

The state also reported 109.3 new cases a day in a seven-day average. The state wants that at 10 or less to reopen.

Rattay stressed that it’s important to do everything possible to have a limited flu season this year, especially as the number of coronavirus cases has ticked up.

“We are hoping and praying that we have a very mild influenza season,” Rattay said. 

And some health officials say that’s possible, because people are more aware of infection control methods.

Rattay also warned that if someone were to get either the flu or COVID-19, he or she would be more likely to get the other. 

“This double whammy could be very problematic for individuals who get both infections,” she said.

Rattay said that while both the flu and COVID-19 have similarly broad upper respiratory symptoms such as coughing and a runny nose, flu symptoms come on more suddenly. Another difference that distinguishes the two is that the loss of taste and smell is only a symptom of coronavirus.

“Of course, with COVID-19 there are many people that don’t get symptoms at all,” Rattay said. 

Getting the flu vaccine reduces the risk for more severe illness and decreases the risk of hospitalization from influenza. 

People in high risk categories, such as those with chronic conditions and pregnant women, are all encouraged to get the flu shot. 

Shots are available from private doctors, pharmacies, federal clinics and Public Health clinics, which will have 8 DPH flu shot events across the state. 

Rattay urged Delawareans to get their flu vaccines before the end of October, but the earlier the better. It takes two weeks to become effective, she said.

So far, there has been no confirmed cases of the flu in the state.