School is back in session — meaning that flu season is just around the corner.
Local medical practices and pharmacies are beginning to stock up on flu vaccines for the season, and doctors are recommending that everyone get the annual vaccination as soon as possible. The agent takes about two weeks to be fully effective, so it is best to get immunized early before the virus spreads.
The flu is a contagious viral infection that affects more than 3 million people in the United States every year and can be deadly in the most severe cases. School-age children are most likely to contract the illness — and most likely to spread it — but people of any age can be affected.
Flu season traditionally starts in October, with peaks during Christmas break and around Presidents Day in February, and usually ends in April.
“As soon as the flu vaccine hits the market, it’s time to get the shot. And it’s starting to trickle in now,” said Dr. Gail Schonfeld, owner of East End Pediatrics in East Hampton.
She said her office is starting to receive small quantities of the vaccine for the season and is prioritizing them for her high-risk patients. Once she has an ample supply, she said a mass email will be sent to all of her patients urging them to get a flu shot.
Pharmacies like Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid, as well as those at grocery chains like Stop & Shop and Walmart, offer the flu shot without an appointment. Stop & Shop Pharmacy had the vaccines in stock starting in September and encourage customers to stop by while they are shopping.
Last year on the East End, flu season arrived earlier than usual. Pediatric offices reported high numbers of flu cases between September and December, before the season’s peak. Although the pervasiveness is impossible to predict from year to year, doctors are stressing the importance of taking precautions now so that they do not see the same numbers this year.
“Last year was sort of an anomaly, because it was really, sort of, the longest-running season that we’ve had in years,” said Dr. Louis Goldblum, a part-time physician at Southampton Pediatrics in Hampton Bays. “It really set numbers as far as kids needing to be hospitalized.”
Dr. Goldblum said he began administering the vaccine last week and has already administered about 35 shots to patients.
If people are not comfortable getting a shot, they can instead opt for a nasal spray vaccine. The American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, announced in March that it will no longer express a preference for the flu shot over the nasal spray for children, saying that they are equally as effective.
Pregnant and nursing women are also encouraged to get a flu vaccine, Dr. Goldblum said on behalf of the AAP, of which he is a member and is the former president of its New York chapter covering Queens, Brooklyn and Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Many people choose not to get vaccinated because they believe there is a risk the vaccine will give them the flu — but that is not true. Dr. Goldblum and Dr. Schonfeld both said that is the biggest misconception about the flu shot that they have observed throughout their years of experience.
The flu vaccine is not guaranteed to protect someone from catching the illness, but it is the most effective method of prevention and can lessen the severity of the flu if it were to be contracted.
“Of all the vaccines we use, [the flu shot] is the least effective, but of all the things we vaccinate for, it’s the disease that’s most prevalent,” Dr. Schonfeld explained. “So the chance of getting it is incredibly high, particularly for school-age children.”
She said that doctors and researchers have been working toward a more effective flu vaccine for years, and she has been waiting for that day to come. A better vaccine would mean better protection for more people and possibly eliminating the need to get a shot every year.
“So far, no success,” she said, “and what we have right now is the best we have. And it definitely is better than nothing.”