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Are we ready for flu season?

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Aug 27, 2019 at 11:15 PM

Flu season usually hits Northeast Tennessee around October before peaking during the holidays and falling off in late February or March, but local health officials are already gearing up to prevent and combat the illness.

Washington County Health Department Director Christen Minnick said officials still aren’t exactly sure what to expect after last year’s flu season caused several local school closures and hospitalizations.

“For right now, we’re just telling everybody the same message we tell them every year, which is to encourage everyone to receive the flu vaccination,” she said, adding that hand-washing is also an important part of stopping the spread of flu.

“We don’t have any real idea of how it will be compared to previous years.”

Ballad Health recorded 2,728 flu cases at its facilities during the 2018-19 flu season.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated anywhere between 37.4 million and 42.9 million flu illnesses,17.3 million and 20.1 million flu-related medical visits, 531,000 and 647,000 flu hospitalizations and 36,400 and 61,200 flu deaths from Oct. 1, 2018, to May 4, 2019.

Health experts say exact influenza figures can be hard to track and pinpoint — and even harder to predict. According to the CDC, “flu illness is not a reportable disease and not everyone who gets sick with flu seeks medical care or gets tested.”

Minnick said health department community-wide vaccination events are still in their “early planning stages,” and more information will be released sometime in the middle of September. There are, however, some concerns about future vaccine availability in some areas.

“Our flu vaccine that is being developed is a little bit slow in growing and reproducing this year, so some companies might see their vaccine arrive later than it typically does, but in some cases, it might arrive earlier,” she said. “So this is one of those things where we just wait for the vaccine to come in and start getting this out to people as soon as we get it.”

Minnick said that every year, the CDC and World Health Organization look to the most common strains of the flu to develop a seasonal vaccine and anticipate what the next flu season will look like.

Minnick said it can “change from year to year,” and developers often look to protect against the most common strains. Most seasonal vaccines generally aim to protect against multiple strains.

Last year, the H1N1 strain and H3N2 strain — which is more deadly — traded off, making last year’s flu season particularly dangerous.

According to Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office Director David Kirschke, this was unusual compared to previous years.

“Unfortunately, there’s not really any way to predict it,” he said. “It was a very long season last year, and it was weird that you had two strains trade-off.”

For more information about the flu, visit www.cdc.gov or www.tn.gov/health.

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