What to know about getting your flu shot in the D.C. region this year With pandemic restrictions lifted, public health experts expect an increase in flu cases this fall and winter.
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What to know about getting your flu shot in the D.C. region this year

The region saw record low numbers of flu cases last year, but experts expect to see an uptick this year. Arlington County/Flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/arlingtonva/43226720120/in/photolist-28RNeTW-2bBRuxv-2bBRuze-PtXg11-2bBRuvB-79JSBH hide caption

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As COVID-19 cases in the region drop after a delta-driven surge, public health officials are sounding the alarm about a different viral threat: the flu.

Last year, flu cases in the D.C. region (and the nation) dropped to historic lows, thanks to school closures, near-universal mask mandates, and business restrictions on crowd sizes and gatherings. With many of those protections now gone, officials are concerned about a "twindemic" of coronavirus and flu cases, and local leaders are urging residents to get their flu shots.

"We had the lowest rates in the country and in D.C. of influenza [last year] than we had in quite some time because of people getting out and getting their vaccine, paying attention to how well they washed their hands, they kept their distance," DC Health director LaQuandra Nesbitt said at a promotional flu shot event earlier this month. "More importantly, they stayed home when they were sick and we want people to continue to do all of those things this year."

Already, physicians have reason to believe that flu cases will at least increase beyond last year's rates. According to Dr. Claire Boogaard, a pediatrician at Children's National Hospital, the number of children seeking care for respiratory illnesses increased late this summer. RSV, a common childhood illness that normally circulates later into the winter, spiked early this year. That caused a surge in hospitalizations in September, overwhelming hospital systems as providers managed a concurrent spike in COVID-19 infections. Even adults, whose immune systems haven't had to fend off some viruses in more than a year, might face worsened cold symptoms this winter.

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"We are seeing an increase in the respiratory illnesses that are shared amongst human beings, so we have seen a rise in normal cold viruses, which are typically non COVID-19 coronaviruses or enteroviruses, we've seen [RSV], and rhinovirus," Boogaard says.

The optimistic piece of news is that coronavirus cases locally have declined since a mid-September peak. As of Oct. 13, D.C., Maryland and Virginia reported a combined average daily caseload of 3,300 — around a 35% decrease since Sept. 17. Hospitalizations, too, have started to plateau.

Even so, outbreaks of COVID-19 are almost certain to happen throughout the colder months. To avoid battling two respiratory viruses at the same time, officials are pushing the COVID-19 shot and the flu vaccine.

Where and when you can get your flu shot in the D.C. region?

Flu shots are now available across the area. The Centers for Disease Control recommends getting a shot by the end of October. (The flu vaccine can be administered at the same time as a coronavirus vaccine.)

This week, D.C. announced that three walk-up sites for COVID-19 vaccinations will now also administer free flu shots to residents ages three and up. In Montgomery County, the health department will stand up a number of free flu shot clinics over the coming months. D.C.-area residents can also get a shot at local retailers like CVS, Giant, Harris Teeter, RiteAid, Safeway, Walgreens, or Walmart. (Most pharmacies accept walk-ins, but you can visit the CDC's vaccine finder app to locate a pharmacy near you or make an appointment online.) Medstar's urgent care and primary care locations are also offering the flu shot across the region.

Starting on Wednesday, Oct. 13, D.C.'s walk-up COVID-19 vaccination sites at Fort Stanton Recreation Center and Columbia Heights Educational Campus will offer free flu shots to anyone three years old and up. On Oct. 19, the walk-up vaccination site at Benning Library will begin offering flu shots. You can see hours of operation here.

To get a flu shot via a provider, you can use this map of health care providers in D.C.

Montgomery County is hosting flu clinics throughout the fall, and Fairfax County's health department is offering vaccines to children and adults at a handful of locations.

Across D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, several CVS, Harris Teeter, Safeway, and Giant pharmacies are offering flu shots, but check individual websites to make an appointment. You can locate vaccines using the CDC's flu shot tracker.

Alexandria's health department also opened a free flu clinic earlier this month, inoculating more than 500 people in a day, according to Natalie Talis, Alexandria's population health manager. The department is focused specifically on making sure elderly residents receive their flu vaccines.

What to know about getting a COVID-19 vaccine — or booster — with your flu shot

Residents can get a COVID-19 vaccine or a COVID-19 booster at the same time as their flu shot, and Talis says public health officials are encouraging seniors and others eligible for their boosters to do so. Residents over 65 can receive a high-dose flu shot — a flu vaccine designed to produce extra antibodies. It's intended for use in older individuals, whose immune systems have weakened over time.

"We really strongly encourage the high dose flu shot for that population, and are even encouraging people if they're going to get their COVID booster, they can get their booster and their high dose flu shot at the same time, during the same visit so they save a trip, and they're protected against two different kinds of respiratory illness," Talis says.

The flu shot is especially important for young children this year, too, according to public health officials. While kids under 12 await approval for a COVID-19 vaccine, the flu vaccine is available to any child over 6 months of age. (The Food and Drug Administration is set to consider Pfizer's request for approval of its vaccine in children ages 5 to 11 years old later this month, with a ruling expected as early as Halloween.)

Because the flu and COVID-19 present with similar symptoms, Boogaard says Children's National Hospital is preparing to manage an "unprecedented" uptick in patients with either COVID-19 or flu-like symptoms over the coming months — even as officials try to get as many flu shots in arms as possible.

"Not only are we really ramping up our acute care and urgent care to care for kids coming in with routine colds or the flu, or coronavirus, or RSV, but we're also ramping up our testing capabilities. We're all doing our best to continue to vaccinate for the flu, and then offer the COVID-19 vaccine when available."

Public health officials also are worried about combatting general "vaccine burnout." After months of hearing about the coronavirus vaccines and booster shots, officials are concerned that some residents might not be paying attention to the flu this year.

"We definitely are concerned about kind of overall vaccine burnout, I think in the same way that we're concerned about just regular COVID burnout," Talis says. "People have been hearing so much about some of these things for so long that it's really easy to now tune out public health messaging and information ... I think all that we can do is continue to beat the drum about why things are important — why the flu shot is important, why the COVID shot is important."

Talis stresses that the flu vaccine is free for anyone with private or public health insurance — and that uninsured residents can also find low-cost options for shots.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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