As flu season approaches, the pace of immunizations is lagging in the Sacramento region, likely due to mild October weather and, perhaps, fading memories of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
The immunization bell curve that peaked last year in early October is now shifting toward the end of the month, experts say, a pattern that's reflective of the rest of the nation.
The trend comes despite some financial relief from the Affordable Care Act, which mandates this year that health care insurers, Medicare and Medi-Cal (California's version of Medicaid) cover the entire tab for seasonal flu shots.
Meanwhile, the uninsured can take advantage of county flu shot clinics, neighborhood health clinics or one of the many low-cost walk-in offers available at community pharmacies.
There's no indication that this year's seasonal influenzas will be as severe as the pandemic of 2009, experts say, mainly because so many people have already been exposed to H1N1 and developed immunity to it.
Still, California's top health officer, Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, said the protective benefits of getting annual vaccinations should outweigh other concerns because, each year, viruses adapt and change.
"The flu is much more serious than the common cold and has the potential of causing serious illness and death," Chapman said. "Getting vaccinated now is the best way to protect ourselves."
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40 percent of Californians got a flu vaccine during the last influenza season. That includes roughly 53 percent of all children and 61 percent of all senior citizens, mirroring national trends.
The CDC said the flu and its complications rank as the eighth-leading cause of death nationwide, accounting for about 49,000 deaths and upward of 200,000 hospitalizations annually.
This year's flu vaccines are recommended for everyone 6 months of age and up.
What's new is that consumers have a larger variety of options in a flu shot than before, said Jim Cohn, a spokesman for Walgreens, the nation's largest provider of the vaccines outside of the federal government.
There's the typical vaccine; there's a flu mist with live viruses for the hardiest of patients; and there's a higher-dose vaccine for seniors over 65, which has four times the amount of antigen in typical flu shots.
In addition, the option of an intradermal, short needle is new this year. It sticks the skin instead of a muscle.
Finally, for parents and others who worry about the effects of the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, there's a thimerosal-free option, said Cohn.
In multi-dose vials of the vaccine, thimerosal is used to safeguard against possible contamination by germs, bacteria and fungi, according to the CDC, which deems it safe.
However, the single-dose vials of vaccine do not need to be used more than once, and they do not contain thimerosal, the CDC said.
Some side effects of the flu shot may include soreness of the arm, fatigue, mild body aches, coldlike symptoms and a mild fever – all of which should fade in a few days, according to the CDC.
The current 2012-2013 influenza vaccine is plentiful enough to be in supply until spring 2013, said its maker, GlaxoSmithKline. It contains three viral strains, – an influenza A (H1N1), another influenza A (H3N2) and an influenza B virus
Next year, for the first time, the 2013-2014 flu vaccine will blend four different strains of virus, experts say. The problematic viruses for any given year are singled out by federal health officials as early as February.
Kate McAuley, the coordinator of immunization assistance for the Sacramento County Public Health Deparment, said the county has a goal to immunize 10,000 people this year.
"We are seeing a steady turnout," McAuley said. "It's a bit lower than in the past year, so when people do come for their shots, they don't have to wait in line."
Closer to December, the county intends to offer about one clinic per week in various locales throughout Sacramento County.
Consumers can check the county's website at www.dhhs.saccounty.net for information, McAuley said.
The California Department of Public Health recommends this website to find a nearby location offering the flu shot: www.healthmap.org/flushot.