Right now, we’re all stuck inside thanks to our terrible air quality—but the next time you can leave your house, it should be to get a flu shot.
Flu shots were already top of the to-do list, thanks to the global pandemic that’s on its way to killing more than 200,000 Americans (remember that?).
But now, with fires raging across the entire West Coast, and Portland’s air quality among the worst in the world, it’s more important than ever, local doctors say.
According to a recent study from the University of Montana, flu seasons following intense wildfire seasons bring a large uptick in influenza infections—about three to five times more cases than otherwise expected. The fires have also been linked to a rise in hospitalizations from ailments ranging from respiratory problems to heart attacks.
During the 2018–2019 flu season, the United States saw a staggering hospitalization rate for influenza of 500,000. “Even a bad regular flu season can strain our hospitals,” says Dr. Jennifer Vines, the lead health officer for the tricounty region. “Going into winter, we’re very nervous at the thought of both influenza and COVID-19 circulating.”
And adding the potential effects of lingering wildfires and smoke only makes things worse.
“Influenza and COVID-19 both produce similar symptoms,” Vines says. “They're both respiratory viruses. We may have people who get the cough, the fever, have trouble breathing, or other milder symptoms, and they may have some anxiety of, ‘Is it COVID?’ Getting a flu vaccine is going to make it less likely that you have to go through that anxiety about wondering what you have.”
Safety precautions and a fear of catching COVID-19 while out at a clinic remains prevalent. Because of this, alternative ways of receiving vaccinations are cropping up all over Portland. “It’s not a typical year,” Vines says. “Nobody wants to see people crowded together. So, people are talking more about drive-thru clinics.”
In normal times, schools served as a way for students to have accessible access to vaccinations. Laid off employees may also be facing a difficult decision without being able to get free vaccines right at work. Vines is aware of the concerns: “Getting as much flu vaccine out to people is the goal this year. It’s going to look different, but our healthcare partners are really invested in getting as many people vaccinated against flu as possible.”
Starting in mid-August, Walgreens began offering flu shots at all of its locations, earlier than usual. The shot is free to most patients as long as you have pre-existing insurance and fill out an online form. Rite Aid offers the same “free” deal while one-upping Walgreens by allowing walk-ins without pre-filled forms, and many Walgreens locations are now allowing walk-ins, too, who can fill out a paper form on-site. At Portland Urgent Care on NE Sandy Boulevard off 41st, a flu vaccination will run you $42. ZOOM+care, which is scheduling appointments every day for vaccinations, has prices set at $35.
For those who may not have financial means, Vines says, “the Oregon Health Authority has a lot of extra flu vaccine that they’re interested in getting out to people who need low-barrier access, whether cost or location. We’re preparing those plans to make sure they get flu vaccine to people regardless of their insurance or ability to pay.”
Flu season typically runs November through April, Vines says. While there’s no real way of knowing what this year will look like with coronavirus and wildfires still spreading, most doctors seem to be in agreement that getting a shot is better done sooner than later with the additional risks this year. “Ideally, people should plan on getting the vaccine by the end of October,” Vines says. “I have to emphasize that [the vaccine] isn’t perfect ... it may not keep you from getting sick. But it may very well keep you out of the hospital.”
Learn more about how the wildfires are affecting the upcoming flu season in this episode of Footnotes, featuring Riley Blake.