WITH flu season upon Victoria and the everpresent threat of COVID-19 outbreaks, local medical professionals are reminding people it is still important to be immunised against influenza, as well as COVID-19.
The attention that usually surrounds the annual flu shot has been diverted to when and where people can get their COVID-19 jab, but doctors and pharmacists are stressing the flu vaccine needs to be administered alongside, not instead of, the phased rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
The latest Australian Immunisation Register data shows flu vaccination doses administered so far this season totalled 654,565 doses - compared with 2,339,287 for the same time last year.
Overarching medical advice urges people who are currently ineligible for their COVID-19 vaccination to get their flu vaccination as soon as possible, to take the pressure off the health system.
Findlay and Weymouth Pharmacy in Sale is reporting a good take up of the flu vaccine, with 40 people immunised on Tuesday alone.
Proprietor and pharmacist Darren Richards said a COVID-19 vaccination would not prevent the flu, and vice-versa, and therefore it was important to receive both.
"Now is probably the best time to get the [flu] vaccine, as with six-month coverage, this will take us to mid to end of October, covering the whole flu season," he said.
Mr Richards said stopping the spread of any virus was essential, and the more people that are vaccinated the better.
"Stopping the spread of any flu-type virus is essential to protect the vulnerable in our society," he said.
"If we get to herd immunity, around about 90 per cent vaccinated, this will stop any spread of the flu virus."
Mr Richards added staying healthy was one of the best ways to help protect against COVID-19, as a person weakened by the flu was more susceptible to other diseases.
Just across Raymond St, Clocktower Medical Centre's Dr Thomas Walsh said it was important people had full immunity against influenza before flu season hit its peak around July to September.
"The COVID-19 vaccination needs to be separated by two weeks from any other vaccination, including the influenza vaccine," he said.
"This is because the Therapeutic Goods Administration has advised there is not enough evidence to show that other vaccinations will not adversely affect the immune response to the COVID vaccine.
"This separation is also necessary for monitoring of side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine - i.e. that any potential side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine are not confused with side effects coming from other vaccines."
Dr Walsh said even people who had never been immunised against the flu before should be seeking a flu vaccination, because it didn't just protect the receiver.
"It is vital to ensure the spread of influenza is controlled to protect the public, particularly those high risk groups within our communities including the elderly, the very young whose immune systems are not yet fully engaged, and those patients who are immunocompromised, or who have chronic health conditions," Dr Walsh said.
"With the majority of the population being vaccinated for flu, all these risk groups are protected and the spread of flu is limited.
"The annual influenza season increases the strain on the health system.
"With the ongoing threat of COVID-19 causing a similar problem, we want to ensure rates of influenza remain low."
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Dr Karen Price said the twin rollouts of COVID-19 and influenza vaccines were an enormous logistical exercise, especially as the two vaccines were not recommended be given at the same time.
"We are dealing with the twin threats of influenza and COVID-19, for which two national vaccination programs will be rolling out at the same time - it's a lot for our health system to manage, and it's a lot for patients," she said.
Dr Price urged patients in later phases of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to get their flu shot as soon as it is available, and then get their COVID-19 vaccine when they could.
"This will help to minimise strain on the health system and make the experience easier for patients," she said.
"If you're young and healthy you might think you should be standing back and waiting for the most vulnerable patients to get their flu shots first.
"In fact, we want these patients to do the opposite.
"Patients who are more vulnerable, including those who are older, should prioritise getting their COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is offered to them.
"For patients who have questions or concerns about either vaccine, I urge you to book an appointment to speak with your GP - we're here to help."
Dr Walsh added Clocktower Medical Centre was administering both influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations, and urged people to contact the clinic to arrange appointments for either vaccinations.
The centre's COVID-19 vaccination sessions are staffed by an accredited nurse immuniser and a senior doctor to answer patient concerns and questions, give up-to-date information and advice, and ensure it is safe to vaccinate the individual patients.
The annual influenza vaccine is recommended for all patients aged over six months to prevent influenza.
For those aged over 65 years, the adjuvanted influenza vaccine, Fluad Quad, is recommended over the standard influenza vaccine.
The influenza and COVID-19 vaccines should be administered at least 14 days apart, according to clinical advice.
The AstraZeneca vaccine should be administered in two doses, 12 weeks apart.
Patients can check their COVID-19 vaccine eligibility online via covid-vaccine.healthdirect.gov.au.