October 3, 2018

When the flu shot is a family affair

Kaiser Permanente employee Valerie Coté and her family make it a point to get the flu vaccine together after they lost 2 family members to complications from the flu.

Many families have cherished annual traditions, such as summer camping trips or holiday gift exchanges. Every fall, Valerie Coté and her clan take part in their own important tradition. They head out to a Kaiser Permanente family wellness festival together and make sure everyone gets the flu vaccine.

Earlier this month, Coté and her family got the flu shot at the wellness festival at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom put on by Kaiser Permanente Vallejo. Her daughter-in-law Savanna Coté is a medical assistant there.

“You never know how bad the flu is going to be any given season,” said Coté, who has been a teleservice representative at Kaiser Permanente’s Appointment and Advice Call Center in Vallejo for 18 years. “I sleep better at night knowing that my family is vaccinated.”

Losing 2 family members to flu

Coté learned through tragedy just how serious the flu can be. In January 2015, her brother Jim, who was 51 at the time, died of complications from the flu.

“It was a real shock,” Coté said. “The flu shot probably would have saved his life. He left behind 3 daughters.”

Then in October of last year, Coté’s 67-year-old brother-in-law, Mike, died. He had been battling the flu for weeks, then collapsed and never regained consciousness.

“They both had chronic conditions that put them at higher risk for complications from the flu, but neither one of them got the flu shot. It really hits home,” she said.

Why it’s important to get vaccinated

Most people who come down with the flu will recover in less than 2 weeks. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently estimated that, depending on the severity of the season, between 12,000 and 56,000 people have died annually in recent years from the flu in the United States.

Even young and otherwise healthy people can suffer the devastating effects. But  Randy Bergen, MD, KP Northern California’s clinical lead for the flu vaccine program, said some people are at higher risk for complications. They include children under 5, pregnant women, people over 65 and those with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

“The flu is the most serious virus that comes through the community on a regular basis each year,” Dr. Bergen said. “When your body is weakened by a chronic condition, getting a serious virus like the flu can make it even weaker. That’s why it’s so important to get vaccinated.”

‘It really can save lives’

The CDC recommends that nearly everyone 6 months or older, including  pregnant women, get the flu vaccine every year. It estimates that in the 2016-2017 flu season, flu vaccination prevented 5.3 million cases of the flu, 2.6 million flu-related medical visits and 85,000 flu-related hospitalizations.

Last year, Kaiser Permanente Northern California vaccinated more than 1.5 million people to prevent the flu.

Valerie Coté said she talks to her coworkers and encourages everyone she knows to get the flu vaccine.

“I’ll never stop being an advocate for the flu shot,” she said. “I know it really can save lives.”