In most cases, it’s just a prick in the arm and — if you’re unlucky — a lingering sore shoulder. So why do so many North Dakotans hesitate to get a flu shot?
As flu season is poised to begin in earnest, public health officials are urging local residents to get immunized. State health data shows that past seasons have peaked in the early months of the new year, with anywhere from about 2,000 recorded cases during the 2015-16 season to about 8,500 such cases in the 2017-18 season. Haley Bruhn, a public health nurse with the Grand Forks Public Health Department, said it’s best to be prepared.
“The flu shot is our best protection against the flu virus,” Bruhn said. “There are certainly other things that people can do. We talk about hand-washing and sanitizing faces, not coming to work when you’re ill, or not going out in public when you are ill, to minimize exposure to other people.
“But when we talk about flu, one of the populations that is most impacted is children,” she added. “And the more protection that anybody can get, you know, as far as getting themselves vaccinated, that would decrease the spread in the community as well.“
But in Grand Forks, there’s still a ways to go. Records provided by Bruhn show that, in Grand Forks County, 60.1% of children between 6 months and 4 years were vaccinated with at least one dose of the flu shot last season — beating the state average of 52.6%. Likewise for 5- to 12-year-olds, 47.4% of whom were vaccinated, outpacing the state rate of 39.2%.
For older cohorts, though, Grand Forks County is at or behind the state’s vaccination levels. For example, among the 65-and-older set, 46.7% were vaccinated in the county last season, but 53.4% were vaccinated statewide.
“We did receive a small amount of funding from the North Dakota Department of Health, and we are working as a county toward implementing some strategies to increase that (child) coverage rate so we can prevent pediatric flu cases in our county,” Bruhn said.
That roughly $10,000 figure, she said, is backing a close look at ways local providers can help boost local vaccination rates — from follow-up contacts with unvaccinated kids’ families to offering vaccines at emergency rooms.
The flu season doesn’t appear to have begun to peak yet, with only 140 reported cases so far in North Dakota. Across the Red River, Minnesota’s flu season also is months from its peak. There were 38 hospitalizations as of Nov. 9 in Minnesota’s current flu season, coming off a year with about 2,500 such cases, and down quite a bit from a more severe year in 2017-18, when there were nearly 6,500 statewide hospitalizations.
Though the Grand Forks Public Health Department stopped accepting walk-in visits this past week, Bruhn said there are still plenty of ways to get protected. Local residents can schedule an appointment by calling 701-787-8100 and also learn about a number of vaccines available for the uninsured and underinsured. Bruhn also recommends local pharmacies and private practitioners’ offices, among other locations.
Polk County Public Health did not return a request for comment on local flu shot availability.
Bruhn’s encouragement to get vaccinated comes as local vaccination rates among schoolchildren appear to waver. In Grand Forks, Cass, Burleigh and Ward counties, North Dakota kindergartners are increasingly receiving “personal belief exemptions” that excuse them from important vaccines for communicable diseases. Though experts say rising numbers may be at least partially attributable to local schools’ more assertive attempts to track unvaccinated students, public health officials stress that it’s important to stay up to date on vaccines.
And that’s true for the flu shot as much as anything else.
“Even if you are healthy, it’s important to get your vaccine,” Bruhn said. “It reduces the likelihood that you’ll get the virus, but it also reduces the likelihood that you’d be able to transmit it to anybody else.”