The roll out of the annual flu vaccination gets under way across NI from Saturday, with the health minister describing it as more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic.
Robin Swann said cutting the risk of flu will help the health system better manage the rise in Covid-19 cases.
He warned anyone who becomes co-infected with flu and coronavirus could end up with a “severe illness”.
Mr Swann said all measures needed to be taken to “reduce the risk of flu”.
Because flu and coronavirus share similar symptoms “it has the potential to complicate the vital work of the contact tracing and surveillance programme”, he warned.
He added: “Reducing the pressure caused by seasonal flu will help preserve the capacity of the health and social care system to manage any future waves of Covid-19.”
On Friday, 934 new cases of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland were confirmed, more than double the previous daily high.
The figures show 201 new cases in the Derry and Strabane council area, 191 in Belfast and 182 in Newry and Mourne.
Cases were expected to rise in the colder months, when other viruses such as flu are also on the rise, but Mr Swann said that it looked like “October is going to be our Covid winter”.
Urged to get vaccine
The vaccine is available to people over 65 and at-risk groups, including pregnant women and young children.
Pre-school and primary school children are also eligible and, this year, pupils in Year 8 of secondary school will also be able to get the vaccine.
It is also available to people under 65 with an underlying health condition and to contacts of those who received a coronavirus shielding letter from their doctor earlier this year.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) is urging everyone who is eligible for the free flu vaccination to get it.
“For most people, flu is a very unpleasant illness, but in some cases and for those in ‘at-risk’ groups it can be very dangerous and sometimes fatal,” Dr David Irwin of the PHA said.
“That is why we have a wide-ranging vaccination programme which helps protect groups at particular risk in our community”.
In some areas of Northern Ireland on Saturday, large-scale vaccination programmes are being rolled out by GPs.
In the north west, a number of GP practises will be holding vaccination clinics in three schools – Thornhill College, Foyle College (both in Londonderry) and Limavady High School.
Dr Simon O’Hagan, a Derry-based GP, said the pandemic means it is not possible to carry out vaccinations in surgeries as in other years.
Using the schools, he said, means “we can invite people along on specific days and within specific time slots”.
“Because the sites are so much larger with lots of parking, and also with large sports halls etc, we can deliver the vaccines in a safe and socially-distanced manner,” he added.