Mask for the task: Free flu shots as Queensland faces fresh outbreak

In just one week cases of flu have surged in Queensland by the thousands, with residents told to use the tools they used during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep numbers low.

The state government will spend $40 million to provide free flu vaccines for every Queenslander, as this year’s flu season shapes up as one of the worst in history.

Lockdowns, mask mandates and social distancing had kept flu cases low in the past two years.

With those measures lifted, cases of influenza A jumped from 1848 cases last week to 4282 cases this week.

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said they had made the flu vaccine free so everyone could get it as soon as possible, and it was the single best measure to prevent numbers soaring out of control.

Everything we learned through COVID – good hand hygiene, and staying home if you’re sick – we know if people are going into the workforce with influenza A it will spread quickly, especially through an unvaccinated workforce, she said.

And, of course, most people are still carrying around a mask in their handbags or their cars, if you feel like you need to pop that one on if you’re showing symptoms as well.

University of Queensland infectious diseases expert Professor Ian Mackay said the vaccine was a good match with the current strains of influenza A now circulating.

He reiterated the call for people to bring back other pandemic habits, especially mask wearing.

Masks are such a simple but effective way of reducing risk, both from you if you’re infected, and from others infecting you, he said.

The key thing though, and there needs to be more education about this, is the masks need to be well-fitting, they need to be higher than just surgical mask standard, so P2 or N95.

And people need to wear them wherever they go somewhere where the air isn’t fresh, so all indoor places, you need to wear your mask where the risk is greatest.

Mackay said the rising numbers of flu made it far more likely for people to be infected with both influenza A and SARS-CoV-2, leading to a co-infection .

A lot of the literature played down the risk of flurona earlier in the pandemic but that was because there was so little flu around, he said.

That is not the case now, there is huge amounts of flu, and so the risk of getting flurona has also increased dramatically.

Mackay said the cases numbers of flu he and his colleagues had been seeing were quite shocking, both because of the rate they were spreading and how early in the season they were spiking.

He said it could get worse than the flu season in Queensland in 2017, when there were more than 750 people in intensive care, and in 2019, when from the disease.

The Queensland government would also lean on lessons learned during the pandemic.

There are 625 beds in the private sector which could be called upon under current contracts, D’Ath said, as well as the ability to screen and triage people for flu using the external COVID-19 clinics set up at most major hospitals.

D’Ath admitted many GPs were automatically refusing to see anyone with respiratory symptoms due to COVID-19 concerns.

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