by Rachelle Schultz, EdD, Winona Health president/CEO
Labor Day marks the beginning of fall, at least for me. A subtle shift occurs as schools get underway and fall activities kick in. Of course, this year, much of that has been canceled or altered in significant ways. However, one fall phenomenon that won’t change is the advent of flu season. In fact, this annual occurrence is like clockwork. Variability is primarily a factor of how “bad” the flu season is, which is only known as we actually experience it in real time. In 2019, the flu season hit our area, but so, too, did COVID-19. As we plan for fall 2020, the convergence of COVID-19, influenza, and other influenza-like illnesses is likely to cause a lot of confusion and questions.
But there is good news. Unlike the situation with COVID-19, there is a vaccine for influenza. And we know it is effective as demonstrated every year by those who get the vaccine and do not get influenza or need to be hospitalized with respiratory illnesses. The flu vaccine has been available for years and, yes, there are defects in the process. Vaccines are made by forecasting the strain that will show up, however, manufacturing a complete match is very difficult. Also, some who get the vaccine will still get influenza, although they typically have milder symptoms. Additionally, some folks have brief, mild, flu-like symptoms after getting the shot, temporary soreness at the injection site, or, in very few cases, allergies to ingredients in the vaccine. Nevertheless, getting a flu vaccine remains an important self-care or wellness step and remains one’s best protection against influenza.
We strive for a very high rate of vaccination among our providers and staff at Winona Health. It is important that care givers stay healthy in order to care for the sick. Influenza can spread rapidly, and it can have dire consequences to vulnerable populations. At Winona Health, we have achieved a 95-percent rate of vaccination in recent years as our providers and staff seek to stay well to care for our community. This offers “herd immunity” within our staff, essentially protecting patients, visitors, residents and others in our community with whom we come in contact. Ideally, we would like to achieve this in our community. Prior to COVID, influenza-related deaths were a top-of-mind concern and actively tracked as a public health matter. They are still tracked, but COVID has eclipsed influenza deaths; however, we cannot lose sight of influenza.
As we plan for the fall season and the potential surge in respiratory illnesses, whether influenza, COVID, strep, or other respiratory-related infectious conditions, the Winona Health Board has determined that for the month of October 2020, Winona Health will provide free flu shots to our community funded by the Winona Health Foundation. October is also when we vaccinate our providers and staff. Additionally, we are taking a community approach to flu vaccination this year as we partner with Winona County Public Health and the city of Winona to staff and host flu vaccination clinics around the community. The goal is to make it convenient for our family, friends and neighbors to get a flu vaccine. The dates and times of these clinics are posted on our websites for your convenience at www.winonahealth.org/flu2020, www.co.winona.mn.us, www.cityofwinona.com. Further, it is important to know that if the flu shot is given too early (before October), a second flu shot may be needed later in the year. Influenza vaccines provided before or after the month of October will be billed normally.
When COVID-19 hit our community, we executed our emergency preparedness plans – and today Winona Health remains at the ready. Over the past six months, so many individuals and businesses stepped up and took care of our health care heroes, and we remain deeply grateful. As you took care of us, we want to reciprocate by taking care of you with free flu shots in October. Our mission is to improve our community’s health and well-being, and this is one more way we deliver on our mission of caring for you.