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Fearing more strain on hospitals, North Dakota urges residents to get flu shot

"We don't want to have flu cases on top of COVID cases stretching our hospital capacity, so that's why it's important to be vaccinated," said Molly Howell, state immunization manager.

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Gov. Doug Burgum on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, receives a flu shot at the North Dakota Department of Health Division of Emergency Medical Systems building in Bismarck. Michelle Griffith / The Forum

BISMARCK — North Dakota officials on Monday, Sept. 27, strongly advocated for people to get the influenza vaccine to spare additional pressure on already overburdened hospitals in the state.

Gov. Doug Burgum urged residents to receive a flu shot to help preserve hospital capacity and to protect vulnerable populations and the health care system.

"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 news conference Monday. "(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."

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed hospitals to the brink with the rise of the virus' delta variant. North Dakota hospitals are experiencing staffing shortages and running out of room. As of Sunday, Sept. 26, there were just 11 available staffed ICU beds in the state.

Fearing more strain on hospitals, North Dakota urges residents to get flu shot

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The large majority of the COVID-19 patients hospitalized in North Dakota are not inoculated against the virus.

"We don't want to have flu cases on top of COVID cases stretching our hospital capacity, so that's why it's important to be vaccinated," said Molly Howell, state immunization manager.

North Dakota had few influenza cases last year, largely because mitigation measures to prevent COVID-19, like wearing masks, school closures and social distancing, also helped curb the spread of influenza, Howell said.

However, many of those precautions are no longer mandatory and every school in the state is doing in-person education, and North Dakota officials are concerned that fewer people taking part in mitigation efforts will not only fuel COVID-19 cases, but influenza as well, Howell added.

Last year, North Dakota had 244 confirmed influenza cases, which was unusually low compared to the average 7,000 to 12,000 confirmed cases the state has seen in the last three years, Howell said.

In an average year, North Dakota reports about 1,344 flu and pneumonia related deaths, Howell said.

North Dakota's flu season usually begins in October and peaks in late February. Since Aug. 1 of this year, there have been 21 confirmed influenza cases, according to the state health department.

Like the COVID-19 vaccine, the flu shot is highly effective at preventing serious illness that could lead to hospitalization or death. Vulnerable influenza groups include health care workers, those over 65 years old and the immunocompromised, said Dr. David Field, a family care physician at Sanford Health Bismarck.

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Field said on Monday that while working over the weekend, he experienced the toll that the strain on hospitals is taking on health care workers.

"There's been a lot of truly wonderful people that are giving their all to try to keep us healthy here in the state," Field said. "Having one person not get hospitalized ... is so helpful for us. We really want to help everybody in our state, but it is very tiring after this year-and-a-half of COVID."

People may receive the COVID-19 and influenza vaccines at the same time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, a person should not get the influenza vaccine if they are positive with COVID-19, and they should isolate for 10 days before seeking the influenza vaccine.

The annual influenza vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older.

North Dakotans can find more information about the influenza vaccine at health.nd.gov/flu and find a provider at ndvax.org.

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

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