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Pharmacy chains point to rising flu activity

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NEW YORK — Reports from pharmacy retailers indicate that flu activity has been on the rise.

Supercenter chain Meijer Inc. said Monday that purchases of over-the-counter cold and flu remedies at its stores have climbed 30% in recent weeks. The sales increase, according to Meijer pharmacists, suggests a troubling trend: Many consumers may have passed on getting their annual flu shot.

flu-and-cold-products“Flu viruses commonly peak in January and February. If you and your family have not gotten a flu shot, you can still get one,” Karen Mankowski, vice president of pharmacy operations at Meijer, said in a statement. “It’s always better to get your flu shot earlier in the season, but there is no expiration date. Getting a vaccination now can only provide a better chance to protect yourself against the flu and help all of us stay healthier.”

Mankowski added that Meijer’s 230 pharmacies offer flu vaccines on a walk-in basis and without co-payments under most insurance plans.

CVS Pharmacy reported that Washington state has seen an uptick in the number of influenza cases and, as a result, the drug chain is encouraging residents to get vaccinated. The company said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and First Lady Trudi Inslee visited the CVS Pharmacy inside the Target store in Olympia, Wash., on Friday morning to get their flu vaccines, and they urged others who haven’t received a flu shot to do so.

CVS said it offers the standard flu vaccine and/or high-dose flu vaccine without an appointment at its pharmacy locations across Washington, including at its 30 pharmacies inside Target stores in the state.

According to Walgreens, Washington is one of the top 10 states experiencing gains in flu activity. The Walgreens Flu Index, a barometer of flu incidence by state and market area, said Hawaii saw the largest increase in flu activity for the week of Jan. 1, followed by West Virginia, Arkansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Oregon, Wyoming, Washington, Utah and Colorado.

The Walgreens Flu Index is compiled using weekly retail prescription data for antiviral medications used to treat flu across the drug chain’s locations nationwide. States with the most overall flu activity for the week of Jan. 1 were Mississippi, Utah, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska, Texas and Arkansas.

Heading into the holiday season, Bartell Drugs had reported that evidence pointed to an increase in flu outbreaks, including in the Pacific Northwest, even though national flu levels were low and scattered at the time. “We don’t know how severe the season is going to be, so it’s important to get vaccinated before flu activity picks up. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself,” noted Christina Ree, clinical programs manager for Bartell Drugs.

Bartell said Tuesday that despite reports of flu shot shortages at some pharmacies, it has a full stock of vaccinations on hand at all of its 65 locations in western Washington to address the recent rise in flu cases in the area. The drug chain can vaccinate anyone age 3 and older. Flu vaccines are available on a walk-in basis, and customers also have the option to schedule a flu shot online, including from their smartphone.

Flu activity has continued to increase in the United States, according to the latest FluView report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the week ended Dec. 31, the proportion of people seeing their health care provider for influenza-like illness (ILI) rose to 3.4% from 2.9% in the previous week — above the national baseline of 2.2%. The CDC noted that the percentage has been at or above the national baseline for three consecutive weeks so far this season. Influenza A (H3) viruses continue to predominate, and flu activity is expected to rise further in the upcoming weeks.

Typically, flu activity peaks in January and February but can last as late as May. The CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get a flu shot as soon as possible because it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop in the body to provide protection against the influenza virus. Most years, the vaccine is between 40% and 60% effective, according to the CDC.

A preventive service under the Affordable Care Act, the flu vaccine is fully covered and available at no cost through most insurance plans. Pharmacy chains also have incented customers to get vaccinated via their rewards programs. For example, customers get a 20%-off CVS Pharmacy Shopping Pass when they get a flu shot at CVS Pharmacy (or a $5 Target GiftCard at CVS locations in Target stores). And at Meijer, flu vaccinations count as a prescription toward credits in its mPerks Pharmacy Rewards Program, which enables customers to earn savings on shopping and gas purchases.

Inside their stores, chains also have made it easier for consumers seeking relief from flu symptoms. Rite Aid, for instance, offers informational displays in the OTC cold-and-flu medicine aisle at a number of its Wellness Store locations. The signage gives a basic overview of cold and flu symptoms and options for remedies, which are on the adjacent shelves.


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