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Government Shutdown's Impact On Flu Season

Flu Shot - Vaccine - Needle
A patient receives a flu vaccine. (credit: FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - Flu season is here, and Dallas County has already reported its first confirmed death from the illness. But there is a new reason this year that doctors are warning people about the importance of getting the flu shot. The partial government shutdown could make it more difficult to track when and where the flu is getting worse.

The Dallas County Health Department has reported the area's first flu death this season. Officials called this an early and unexpected death from the flu. As is typical in these cases, few details have been released about the person who died. Doctors are not required to report any flu cases or flu deaths, but health officials confirmed that the victim was an adult in his 70s who traveled internationally and had a number of other illnesses.

The death comes just as the flu season traditionally begins to ramp up.

But this year, because of the partial government shutdown, the federal workers who regularly track the flu virus have been furloughed. The public -- including area doctors -- have relied on that information in the past, in order to help predict when a flu outbreak could hit. Warning signs like that might not be available at all this year.

Dr. Shiwali Rai from City Doc Urgent Care explained, "If it is tracking flu cases, then we know what to expect, so we can be prepared, maybe change the way we staff our clinics, increase the staff because of the increase in patients coming in."

Without that early warning, health officials are advising that North Texans be prepared now -- which means getting vaccinated. "The biggest take-home message is to get flu shots, so you can be adequately protected," said Dr. Rai.

The Dallas County Health Department has already started offering flu vaccinations and, right now, supply is plentiful. Officials said that they have ordered 10,300 doses of the flu vaccine, but were concerned that people might be waiting for the holidays to get a flu shot.

Part of the problem, health officials also said, is that uninsured residents may not be able to afford the $20 per person vaccine. So, officials took action on Tuesday morning. The Dallas County Commissioners Court authorized free flu shots for the uninsured. This move comes at the request of the Dallas County Health Department, which had been concerned about how few people had been vaccinated.

"We're very excited," said Zachary Thompson of Dallas County Health and Human Services. "This is going to help us in reducing the number of flu outbreaks that we have here in Dallas County."

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