MaineHealth is considering starting its employee flu shot program a month early – beginning in September instead of October – in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Public health officials across the country are recommending early flu shots to try to avoid a double whammy in late fall or winter of COVID-19 and influenza patients filling up hospital beds and straining the health care system. Northern Light Health, the parent company of Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland, is also looking to start its employee flu shot program as soon as possible, although no date has been set, said spokesman Andrew Soucier.

All of MaineHealth’s 22,000 employees are required to receive an annual flu shot, although they can opt out in certain circumstances. MaineHealth is the parent company of Maine Medical Center and eight other hospitals across Maine and New Hampshire, plus a sprawling network of primary care and outpatient services.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, vice president of community health for MaineHealth, said she hopes that not only will MaineHealth employees get an early flu shot, but that more Maine people, especially schoolchildren, teachers and seniors, get jabbed as soon as they can.

“We believe this is absolutely critical,” Mills said.

Robert Long, spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the state health agency plans to roll out a public education campaign soon that would encourage people to get their flu shot early.

Mills said that while the prevalence of COVID-19 is low in Maine right now, there could be a surge of cases this fall or winter. Also, other parts of the country, especially the South and West, have uncontrolled virus spread, while even in the Northeast, some states, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, are seeing cases start to creep up again.

“In a moderate to severe flu season, the hospital beds fill up, so having COVID-19 and influenza patients will be challenging,” Mills said.

COVID-19 hospitalization rates are currently low – about 10-12 patients daily since mid-July – but at its peak in late May Maine hospitals were caring for about 60 patients per day.

Both viruses are killers. In the 2019-20 flu season, there were 10,109 confirmed cases, 517 hospitalizations and 42 deaths. COVID-19 has so far sickened 4,042 people in Maine, with 393 hospitalizations and 125 deaths.

Mills said that there are other good reasons to get a flu shot, including that it’s possible to be infected with both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time. Some of the symptoms overlap, such as fever, muscle aches and cough, so some patients will be tested for both influenza and COVID-19 at their doctor’s office, she said. If doctors know it’s flu and not COVID-19, they can give patients flu medications sooner.

Another reason is that if schoolchildren receive the flu vaccine early, that can help reduce the severity of the flu season.

“We don’t know how much children transmit COVID-19, but we do know that children are major transmitters of the flu,” Mills said. “We are gearing up for a long and arduous fall and winter.”

In anticipation of greater demand for the flu shot, the health care system has ramped up production of flu shots, from 170 million in a typical season to 190 million for 2020-21, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told National Public Radio last week that if companies start producing the COVID-19 vaccine later this year, there could be competition for some of the same supplies needed for both the influenza vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine.

“Given what will be needed to make and administer a COVID-19 vaccine along with all other vaccines currently given, physicians, manufacturers and public health specialists are currently in discussion about the needed supplies and distribution,” Jha told NPR.

But Maine public health officials told the Press Herald that as of now there do not appear to be any problems with flu vaccine supplies or distribution.

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