While the nation’s attention is focused on COVID-19, another respiratory illness is waiting in the wings.

Influenza season is on its way, and flu shots are available throughout the Northland. Seasonal influenza may not be grabbing attention like the pandemic, but it’s an annual threat that kills, health officials said.

“Every year the flu is one of the top reasons for morbidity and mortality, admissions to the hospital, missed days from work, debilitation and death even,” said Essentia Health family practitioner Dr. Nicole Groeschl. “I think those numbers, though, get kind of brushed under the rug because the flu isn’t as exciting as something like a pandemic. It’s not sweeping the whole world all at once.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that influenza was associated with 39 to 56 million illnesses, 410,000-740,000 hospitalizations, 24,000-62,000 total deaths and 169 pediatric deaths during the 2019-20 flu season.

People can become numb to the yearly call to vaccinate, but the data shows it can prevent the illness.

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“There’s something available right now that can save your life, and it’s called a flu shot,” Groeschl said.

Local health care professionals stress that this year, it’s critical to protect yourself against the flu.

“We absolutely are encouraging everyone 6 months and older to get a flu shot this year,” said Douglas County Public Health Nurse Lisa Freier. “It may actually be more important than ever to get the flu shot. No one wants to have the flu on top of COVID-19.”

Fewer people in the hospital with influenza also means more beds will be available if COVID-19 cases spike, officials said.

As the temperatures cool and more activities move indoors, the chances of respiratory disease transmission increase, whether it be COVID-19 or influenza. Flu season typically peaks between January and February, but can start in late fall. It's not too early to get vaccinated.

"“I’ve given probably 10 of them today,” Groeschl said Wednesday, Sept. 2.

Doctors suggested getting the vaccine by the end of October to ensure protection, although it will remain available throughout flu season.

“We know the influenza vaccine is not perfect,” said Dr. Andrew Thompson, an infectious diseases physician at St. Luke’s.

He and Groeschl said the efficacy of the vaccine, which targets flu strains currently circulating in the southern hemisphere, is roughly 50%.

“Fifty percent is way better than zero,” Thompson said.

One mitigating factor this year is awareness. The public in general is staying socially distant, wearing masks in public and washing their hands frequently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those same things can prevent influenza. It all adds up.

“We have a lot of little tools which, in combination, can make a huge difference,” Thompson said.

Vaccinations are the most effective, powerful intervention doctors have on a mass scale, he said. That includes annual flu shots and childhood vaccinations. Both St. Luke’s and Essentia are encouraging parents to bring children in for routine well-child checkups and shots to keep them from falling behind.

Although the health systems still provide tele-medicine options, more and more people have been making in-person appointments. Precautions in place at facilities include social distancing, plexiglass barriers and masks on everyone. The pandemic has made health care professionals re-evaluate interactions with patients.

“If I saw someone with a cough a year ago, I might not always mask going into that room. Now granted, looking back, Monday morning quarterback, I mean of course I should have been wearing a mask,” Groeschl said.

Wearing a mask and eye protection is now routine.

“I do think all the precautions we’re taking, I think we’re going to see better flu numbers,” Groeschl said, noting that the number of flu cases in the area plummeted when COVID-19 emergency restrictions were put in place this spring.

St. Luke's is taking appointments for flu shots, Thompson said. A flu shot clinic is also being planned, but nothing has been finalized. People can watch for more information on the St. Luke's website.

Essentia Health plans to hold a flu shot clinic from Oct. 5-8 at the Sears building in the Miller Hill Mall. Anyone coming in for a scheduled appointment can request a flu shot at the same time, Groeschl said.

Flu vaccines are also available at Superior Walgreens and CVS pharmacy stores.