It’s almost time for the strangest flu season Grand Forks — and the rest of the country — has ever seen.

The COVID pandemic has stolen the last 18 months of headlines, but influenza hasn’t ever gone away. And though public health experts say distancing and masking kept infections remarkably low last winter, those safeguards are fading out of public practice just in time for this flu season’s arrival.

Alongside COVID, that could be disastrous.

"I think that the coming flu season now is more important than maybe any other year,” said Haley Bruhn, the immunization program manager for the Grand Forks Public Health Department, pointing out hospital resources already stretched thin for COVID treatment. “The more we can do to protect ourselves against influenza, the more we’ll be able to stay healthy at home and allow our health care experts to really take care of those people who need the care for COVID-19.”

That’s important at Altru Health System — the epicenter of Grand Forks’ fight against COVID — and beyond. Officials at Altru pointed out that health care resources around the country are strained.

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Grand Forks is in "high risk" status, with 41 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to data from the Grand Forks Public Health Department. In the week prior to Wednesday, there were 248 cases confirmed in the county. Approximately 49% of the county's residents have received two doses of vaccine.

"I think if you read up, all of health care is tight, so to speak,” said Josh Deere, Altru’s medical director of primary care. “I think we're doing a pretty good job of trying to be creative to staff as many beds as we can."

Bruhn said the local Health Department is launching its flu vaccines on Monday, with appointments available at 701-787-8100; Altru’s flu vaccine information is available on its website, at altru.org/flu, and at 701-795-2000.

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Local officials tout those resources as just as the state launches its own vaccine campaign — with Gov. Doug Burgum publicly receiving his own immunization at a press conference Monday in Bismarck.

"We want to make sure that we protect that health care system and vaccines are one of the safest and easiest ways to ensure that," Burgum said at a Monday press conference. "(Vaccines are) 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."

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The last 18 months have been long and difficult for the country, but especially for those who work in public health — who have often been forced into the front lines of a pandemic crisis. That crisis — and vaccines themselves — have taken on a profound political resonance during the past year, with some Americans wary of government and employer mandates for COVID immunization.

Last year, the country was broadly protected against influenza, with remarkably low case counts nearly everywhere. But Annette Groves, public health nurse for Ramsey County, points out that was helped by masking and distancing.

“We had a lot of people that had their groceries delivered — they were homebound, essentially,” Groves said of last winter. “So now, people are going to the salons, their grocery stores, their department stores, and many — most — are not wearing masks anymore. We recommend that they mask up and continue to do that and social distance."

Will that vaccine skittishness affect flu shots, too? Bruhn said it’s hard to say; before flu vaccines start going in arms, she doesn’t have any numbers to indicate one way or another.

But she said that it’s been easy to forget about other illnesses in a year dominated by COVID-19 news. And it’s important for people to remember as the winter comes.

COVID has been on the forefront of everyone's minds this year,” she said. “You do have to step back and remember that other respiratory illnesses — RSV, flu — those are going to start surfacing again once we all move indoors in the coming fall season.”