PEORIA — Pharmacist Seth McIntyre has never seen so much interest in the flu vaccine during late summer.


"I’ve been blown away just because traditionally this time of year we don’t see nearly this many flu shots," said McIntyre. "I actually almost ran out of my supply of high-dose vaccine and had to make an emergency order and get some more in stock ... The last thing we want is someone to come in and we have to tell them to come back to get that vaccine, because the best time to get it is when the patient’s willing and able."


A steady stream of customers have been coming in to get vaccinated at the Sheridan Road Hy-Vee where McIntyre is pharmacy manager. The vaccine became available there in mid-August. Most notable is the number of younger people coming in.


"Usually the early birds coming out are the over-65 crowd ... We have doctors who encourage it more with their older patients, so they are, a lot of the time, the crowd to get out first. But this year we are seeing really equal numbers of both," said McIntyre.


While medical experts always urge people to get a flu shot, the message has been particularly urgent this year with COVID-19 circulating across the globe. People appear to be listening.


"I really feel like, if there’s any good that’s come out of this pandemic, it’s the fact that I’m seeing a little more confidence in medical science, and the process that medical science is following to make us healthier and give us a fighting chance against these things that are coming for us," said McIntyre.


Why is the pandemic making it more important to get a flu shot?


The flu shot will not provide immunity to COVID-19, but it will keep a lot of people from getting the flu, which presents with symptoms similar to COVID-19. If there is less flu circulating in the community, doctors will be more likely to suspect COVID-19 when someone comes in with those symptoms.


"You’ve got to think about the way it presents — you get the symptoms and you think you have the flu, and it turns out you have COVID-19. Now you just exposed a lot of people to COVID that we don’t have a vaccine for," said Eric Rahn, director of clinic operations for UnityPoint Health. "At least if you have the flu, the chances are that a lot of people probably have been immunized."


And because a bad flu year can result in a lot of hospitalizations, health experts are also trying to get ahead of capacity issues that could potentially happen this winter.


"We’re not sure what COVID is going to do this fall and winter. People are wondering if we will see another surge," said Dr. Brian Curtis, an internal medicine doctor with OSF HealthCare. "Nobody knows because we are in uncharted waters with it. We do know that, during bad flu years, we can have large numbers of people in the hospital with influenza. So with the unexpected nature of COVID and us not knowing what’s going to happen this fall, if we can decrease the amount of illness we are going to see in one category, it’s in the best interest of everybody to do that."


Will mask wearing and social distancing help prevent the flu?


Late last winter, when Illinois shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19, flu levels plummeted.


"It really had everything to do with people staying home and masking, and doing all the things they were supposed to do. It worked to really kind of wipe out what was left of the flu season," said Rahn. "With flu, the positive rates typically peak in the middle of winter ... then you start to see your percentage rates going down each week. It’s a pretty steady curve. Last winter it was a steady curve and then it just stopped."


Today, however, with quarantine measures lifted and businesses pretty much back to normal in many areas, the flu may spread more easily than it did back in March. But people following the pandemic public health measures should be less susceptible to the flu.


"Mask wearing should help, and hand hygiene is important even when we are not in a pandemic," said Rahn. "So hand washing and masking is still going to be the message, and of course on the flu you should be vaccinated."


What type of flu vaccine is available this year, and when should I get it?


Hy-Vee is stocking both the regular-dose and high-dose quadrivalent vaccine, which provides protection against two A strains and two B strains of the flu, said McIntyre. The higher-dose vaccine is recommended for people over 65 because it elicits a stronger immune response. This is the first year the high-dose quadrivalent has been widely available — last year most seniors got the high-dose trivalent, a vaccine containing only three strains of the flu.


"The high-dose quadrivalent was available last year in very limited supply," said McIntyre. "Last year, only early birds got high-dose quadrivalent."


In terms of supply, McIntyre is confident that there will be enough even if more people than usual get a flu shot this year.


"Looking at the market, I'm not concerned at this time," said McIntyre. "I feel like they’ve got a good position."


The Centers for Disease control recommend getting the flu vaccine in September or October, but if you miss that window it’s still important to get it later. Flu can continue circulating in the community through the spring.


Are there any new ways to get a flu shot?


COVID-19 has inspired lots of innovation in the way medicine is being delivered, from telemedicine to drive-thru testing sites, and some of that innovation is being applied to flu shots.


OSF HealthCare said there are plans to do drive-thru flu shots at some point this fall, and UnityPoint Health is poised to jump on the effort if demand rises to the point where walk-in clinics and primary care physicians are having trouble handling the rush, said Rahn. Drive-thru flu shots can be quickly implemented by adding another lane to the drive-thru sites UnityPoint Health is currently using for COVID-19 testing, he said.


Hy-Vee has already started doing drive-thru flu shots and will continue those clinics through Oct. 31. Drive-thru hours at all stores are Monday 7-11 a.m., Thursday 3-7 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.


If you can’t make those hours, you can always walk into the store. Pharmacists in Illinois are able to vaccinate anyone over the age of 10. For more information visit hy-vee.com/health/pharmacy/flu-shots/.


Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.