Under blue skies and a blazing sun with temperatures getting up to 89 degrees, the DeKalb County Board of Health set up a drive-thru flu vaccination clinic Friday outside the Northlake Mall. From noon to 6 p.m., one car after another pulled up to the clinic, with drivers and passengers vaccinated and on their way in as little as five minutes.
Sure, it may still feel like summer. And fall may not technically begin for another couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start thinking about the upcoming flu season. That’s especially true after the severe flu outbreak of 2017-18 that claimed the lives of 150 in Georgia, including five children.
Claudina Prince, a registered nurse with the DeKalb County Board of Health, prepares a flu shot for Tom Keating. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Tom Keating, 76, of Decatur was at a nearby meeting when he decided to take advantage of the easy way to get a flu shot outside Northlake Mall.
“I’m delighted the weather is good and the people are helpful,” said Keating, who praised the county, which offers flu vaccines at its county health centers, for setting up the drive-thru clinic. He never even needed to get out of his car.
The shots at the drive-thru were convenient but not necessarily free. They cost $35 for standard vaccines, and $65 for high-dose vaccines for people 65 and older. Most insurance plans, however, cover flu shots.
Ebonee Gresham (center) and Claudina Prince, both registered nurses with the DeKalb County Board of Health, prepare a flu shot for Tom Keating (left) of Decatur. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Experts say now is a good time to get a flu shot. The Georgia Department of Public Health said it is already getting reports of flu cases around the state although there’s no particular pocket of outbreaks yet.
Public health officials say that everyone 6 months of age or older should receive a flu vaccine by the end of October — and it may be best to get a flu shot even earlier than that since it takes about two weeks after getting the vaccine to develop antibodies against the flu. Getting vaccinated before flu season is in full swing offers the best protection, experts say.
The vaccine has also been adjusted for the approaching flu season in hopes of targeting the strains that will likely circulate this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nasal spray flu vaccines have also been reformulated and are now, once again, recommended for the 2018-19 flu season. However, the nasal spray is only recommended for non-pregnant women, and for people ages 2-49.
Each year, on average, 5 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu, tens of thousands are hospitalized and thousands die from flu-related illness. This costs an estimated $10.4 billion a year in direct medical expenses and an additional $16.3 billion in lost earnings annually, according to the CDC.
Here, there were record-breaking hospitalizations for the flu in metro Atlanta last flu season — more than 3,000 hospitalizations. There were also 150 deaths, including five children, in Georgia. One year earlier, there was half that number of hospitalizations in metro Atlanta and a total of nine flu-related deaths in the state.
MORE: A look back at last season’s nightmare flu season
It’s impossible to predict how bad this year’s flu season will be. Public health officials say flu viruses are constantly changing, with Georgia Department of Public Health spokesperson Nancy Nydam saying, “the only predictable thing about the flu is that it is unpredictable.”
“It’s key that everyone understands our best protection is a seasonal flu vaccine, which are now available and can help mitigate the severity of this season,” said Dr. Andi Shane, medical director of hospital epidemiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Even if you don’t get a flu shot by the end of October, experts say it’s never too late to get one at any point during flu season.
The CDC said it can’t predict whether this season’s vaccine will be a particularly good match for the circulating viruses, but experts say even if a particular batch of flu vaccine offers less-than-ideal protection, some protection is still better than none. Flu activity tends to pick up in October and November, and usually peaks between December and February.
Those who pass on getting flu shots may have second thoughts about skipping them this year. About one in five people who didn’t get the vaccine last season reported they’re more likely to get the flu vaccine this time around because the last flu season was so severe, according to a new online survey by CVS Pharmacy that was conducted by Harris Poll in July. About 2,000 U.S. adults were surveyed.
Among parents with children younger than 18 who were not immunized last year, 26 percent said their children will be vaccinated this year, according to the survey.
MORE: What you need to know if you have the flu