JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As flu season begins, health officials and local vaccinators emphasized getting the influenza vaccine to prevent further strain in already packed hospitals.

Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said the best time to get the vaccine is right now. Anyone 6 years and up are eligible. Individuals above 65 can receive a higher dose vaccine for more protection.

“Anytime between September and October is really that ideal time to get that flu vaccine,” Swift said.

Last flu season was relatively mild compared to two years ago. Pre-pandemic, on the first week of January 2020, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 4,948 patients with influenza-like illness. In the first week of 2021, the department reported just 887 patients with influenza-like illness. That is something doctors credit to widespread masking and social distancing measures.

The most recent data from the week of August 8 indicated 1,243 patients with influenza-like illness.

Dr. Brian Enriquez of Holston Medical Group said getting the flu vaccine is of upmost importance because it could lower inpatients at area hospitals.

“It could hopefully make you avoid the hospital, and you don’t strain the already limited resources that are there,” Enriquez said. “The flu can very easily land you a stay in the hospital.”

Navigating this flu season could prove difficult because the flu and COVID-19 share several symptoms, including coughs, fatigue, aches and congestion.

Dr. Jacob Cox, a pharmacist at Mooney’s Pharmacy, said if you experience those symptoms, but with a fever or loss of taste or smell, it’s time to get a COVID test. But if that test comes back negative you should get a rapid flu-strep throat test because you will be able to get treatment quickly.

“If you’re immunocompromised or older, that’s something we want you to do so we can get you started on therapy for that,” Cox said.

Cox said last year’s lower flu spread led to fewer people getting the flu shot.

“We actually had a drop in flu shots from last year,” Cox said. “This year I expect that to go back up because those protocols in place from the government are going away.”

Cox said Mooney’s ordered more doses of the flu shot for this season than they did last year.

Getting your rapid flu test is quick and easy. It is available at some pharmacies, but also at your primary care provider. Enriquez said you can even get it in conjunction with a COVID test.

“With one swab, we can test for both,” Enriquez said. “Because so many of the symptoms overlap, it is not uncommon for me to consider both illnesses.”

Swift said unvaccinated people, if they chose to get the shot, will not have to wait between getting a COVID vaccine and a flu shot. She said individuals can start their COVID shot doses and get their flu shot in the same appointment.