This year's flu vaccine guards against new strains

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The vaccine is covered by insurance, and Medicare and some plans don't require a copay; drugstore vaccination programs tend to charge about $30.

People can be vaccinated anytime, but Jernigan cautioned that it takes about two weeks for protection to kick in. Flu typically starts to appear in October or November, and peaks in January or February.

Also this year, public health groups are urging workers in doctors' offices, hospitals and particularly nursing homes, where patients are especially vulnerable, to do a better job getting vaccinated.

About 67 percent of health care workers were vaccinated last year, a number that's slowly rising. Doctors are the best role models, with about 86 percent immunized. But anyone — from the receptionist to the person delivering meals — can spread influenza to patients, and just half of those workers in nursing homes got vaccinated last year, Koh said.

In addition to patient safety, hospitals and clinics need to have enough healthy staff to care for the sick once the flu strikes, said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University.

When that happens, "we need to be vertical, not horizontal," he said.

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Online:

Government info and vaccine finder: http://www.flu.gov

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