A planned and targeted winter vaccination campaign to help protect those most at risk from respiratory illnesses has been launched by the Public Health Agency (PHA).
The campaign, which is due to commence on 19 September, will see flu and COVID-19 vaccines offered to over 1 million people in Northern Ireland within eligible groups over coming months.
Dr Jillian Johnston, Interim Assistant Director in Health Protection at the PHA, is urging everyone who falls into an eligible group to get ready for winter by taking up the offer of free vaccination when invited.
“We are all aware of the dangers of COVID-19 but we must not forget that flu is also a very serious virus that can result in death and complications which can include pneumonia, inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues, as well as multi-organ failure,” Dr Johnston said.
“Flu activity levels have been extremely low globally the last two winters, mainly due to COVID-19 prevention measures. As a result, a lower level of population immunity against flu is expected this year. This coupled with COVID-19, which hasn’t gone away, could potentially result in a real health threat particularly for vulnerable members of our community.
“Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent infectious diseases as they teach our immune system how to recognise and fight viruses. Being vaccinated against both viruses will not only help to protect you and those around you from flu and COVID-19, but will help protect everyone from a potentially devastating double threat this winter which could also impact on the services within our Health and Social Care system.”
The programme will be implemented using a combination of GPs, community pharmacies and Health and Social Care Trusts, with the majority of vaccinations expected to be administered by GPs and community pharmacies.
If you are eligible for flu vaccination, you need to be vaccinated every year as the antibodies that protect you from flu decline over time, and flu strains change from year to year. It can take up to two weeks for your immunity to build up fully after you have had your flu vaccine.
COVID-19 autumn booster
The COVID-19 autumn booster is being offered to people at higher risk from coronavirus. By taking up the booster vaccine this autumn, you will increase your protection ahead of the winter months, when respiratory viruses are typically at their peak.
Vaccine programme arrangements
Given that the two vaccination programmes will be running at the same time, with slightly different arrangements and eligible groups for each, we are urging people to work with our health service, whether it is the school nursing service, your GP surgery, community pharmacy or another route of vaccination, so that both programmes can be delivered in a timely and well-managed way.
Some people may be offered the flu jab and COVID-19 booster vaccine at the same appointment. It is safe and effective to receive it in this way.
Everyone who is eligible for vaccination should make themselves aware of their own GP surgery’s, community pharmacist’s or trust’s vaccination arrangements, or look out for the consent form for their children coming home in schoolbags.
Dr Johnston concluded: “The flu and COVID-19 vaccines are free and could make a big difference to your health and the health of those closest to you. It is really important that ‘at risk’ groups are vaccinated as they can develop severe illness and complications
“The message is clear – if you’re eligible for either the flu vaccine, COVID-19 vaccine or both, take up the offer when invited.”
Eligible groups for flu vaccine in 2022 to 2023 are:
Those aged 50 years and over (by 31 March 2023)
Those aged 6 months to 2 years, and 16 to 49 years in clinical risk groups
All preschool children aged 2 or over on 1 September 2022
All primary and secondary (up to year 12) school children
Those in long-stay residential care homes
Close contacts of immunocompromised individuals
Frontline health and social care workers.
Eligible groups for COVID-19 vaccine in 2022 to 2023 are:
All adults aged 50 and over (those born before 31 March 1973)
Those aged 5 to 49 years in a clinical risk group
Residents in a care home for older adults, and staff working in care homes for older adults
Those aged 5 to 49 years who are household contacts of people with immunosuppression
Those aged 16 to 49 years who are carers
Frontline health and social care workers.
COVID-19 first, second and booster doses
COVID-19 first, second and booster doses are still available to those who are not yet fully vaccinated.