Burgum gets flu shot

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum receives a flu shot during a virtual Town Hall to urge the public to get their flu shots. It is a critical step to take, Burgum and other North Dakota doctors said, to help preserve the state's health care capacity, which is being strained right now by an increase in COVID-19 cases. 

With North Dakota’s health care capacity already feeling the strain from a spike in COVID-19 cases, the state’s health care officials are hoping more people will consider not just a COVID-19 vaccination, but also a flu shot.

“We don’t want to have flu cases on top of COVID cases, stretching our hospital capacity,” State Immunization Program Manager Molly Howell said during a virtual Town Hall Monday, during which Gov. Doug Burgum was given a flu shot.

“Vaccines are one of the safest and easiest ways to ensure (that we protect the health care system in North Dakota),” Burgum said. “They’re one of the miracles that have helped, not just our nation, but the world, achieve things that had never been achieved in the history of humankind.”

Burgum said he recalls a time when the measles killed 530,000 people a year, but thanks to vaccines, that number is close to zero now. He also recalled the “incredible joy” when the polio vaccine was announced. He was a a child at the time, but his Uncle, who had been an athlete, had been stricken from the waist down by polio and lived with that for the rest of his life.

Flu vaccines continue to evolve and advance, Burgum added, and get better and better at preventing serious illness and saving lives.

“It’s data driven, it’s proven,” he said. I understand why these work, and it’s why I’m here today to get my flu shot, and I’m excited to do that.”

Family practice physician Dr. David Field with Sanford Health also told a story during the virtual Town Hall to illustrate how important it is right now to preserve hospital capacity. It’s not just to save room for potential COVID-19 patients, but also for others who might need regular emergency or other high level health care services.

“Jeff Sather from Minot, a physician at Trinity, told this story, and it kind of relates on why we need to be really on top of this flu season,” Field said. “There’s an individual who needed an ICU bed in Sidney, Montana, and the normal health care transportation or followup would be to Minot.”

The doctor called North Dakota. Then he called South Dakota. Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Ultimately, the needed ICU bed could only be found in Seattle, Washington.

“How about if that’s a new, just a regular pneumonia or cardiac problem or a mild surgery?” Field asked. “What if we don’t have access? We’re striving hard to make sure that never happens.”

Field said North Dakotans can play a great role in helping ensure there are beds for people who need health care, by getting their flu shots as well as their COVID-19 vaccinations in order.

“We just need everybody to help us do our job in the best way possible,” he said. “In North Dakota we will do anything for a neighbor, if we ask. Please save a life. Please get your flu shot. Please call your primary care provider, your public health officer, public health area. Please get your shot, and we’ll all be healthier for it.”

Howell said there is additional uncertainty around this year’s flu season, since last year’s social distancing and other measures to curb COVID-19 also helped curb influenza case.

“We are seeing high levels of RSV right now, and that could potentially mean flu season might be earlier this year,” she said. “Currently we are seeing sporadic activity of flu cases in North Dakota, which is normal for this time of year.”

Howell recommended people get tested early if they have symptoms, and remember to stay home if sick, and cover coughs and sneezes.

“There are antivirals that can be prescribed to shorten the duration or severity of illness (for flu),” she added. “The flu vaccine reduces infections and clinical severity of disease by preventing the virus from entering and damaging. Cells, especially those in the lungs. It is the best and easiest way to keep people from severe disease and death due to influenza.”

Dr. Nizar Wehbi, meanwhile, went through some of the recommendations for flu shots.

“Everyone older than six months of age should get a vaccine for influenza,” he said. “Special attention should be paid to those who are at in increased risk for serious health outcomes from influenza. That includes children younger than age 5 and adults over 65 years of age.”

It also includes hose with compromised immune systems or chronic health conditions, pregnant women and American Indians or Alaska natives.

Those who are in close contact with those who have high risk factors should also vaccinate to help protect those individuals, Wehbi added. This includes health care workers, long-term care employees, family members, children between 6 months and 8 years.

The ideal timeframe is to get vaccinated this fall before Halloween, as the vaccine takes about two weeks to be effective. It’s never too late to get the vaccine.

People can receive flu vaccines at the same time as other vaccines, including COVID-19. They are available in many places, from doctors offices and clinics to local health departments and pharmacies.

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