A staggering 80,000 flu-related deaths are estimated to have occurred last winter, according to information from Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control. That is the highest death toll from the flu in four decades.

Add to that the fact that 700,000 people were hospitalized and we have more than enough reason to be particularly proactive with our vaccination programs this year.

Dr. William Schaffer, a vaccine expert from Vanderbilt University, commented on those numbers by saying "that’s huge." It is nearly twice the number of deaths typically expected during a "bad" year.

The reason for the significant increase in deaths last year is likely due to the fact that the strain appears to have mutated just prior to the flu season, making the available vaccine only about 40 percent effective.

Pharmacists and pharmacies are gearing up now for this flu season, ordering in supplies of the influenza vaccine along with other antiviral medication, like Tamiflu. Jonathan Drew, a pharmacist from Parks Pharmacy in Augusta, Georgia, said, "With the flu how bad it was last year, we went ahead and stocked up early so we wouldn’t run into any shortages this year."

Patients are being encouraged to get immunized now, rather than waiting, especially since it can take two to four weeks for the vaccine to be fully effective.

Patients are even being incentivized to get immunized through deals offered by some of the large chains. Publix, for example, is offering a $10 gift card when you use their pharmacy.

Walgreens has a similar deal, but the coupon requires spending $30. CVS is offering a $5 Target coupon to customers who get their vaccine from them. Some grocery store pharmacies are offering a $5 coupon off your food bill for every patient. And since most health plans are a zero copay, patients have nothing to lose.

Individual pharmacies are often recognized for their outstanding efforts to outperform other stores in their district when it comes to flu vaccine administrations. The University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, longtime sports rivals, are getting in on this competition as well.

According to The Daily Tar Heel, both "schools are competing to vaccinate the most people by Dec. 7 in a nationwide competition." Apparently, UNC currently has the lead.

Pharmacists frequently discuss common objections that patients have to the flu vaccine, in an effort to better address their concerns.

In a recent panel discussion transcript published by Pharmacy Times, pharmacist Brian Hille talks about managing the patient who believes they could get the flu from the vaccine. "You can say that that is impossible until you’re blue in the face, but they believe what they want to believe. But we should always, as health care providers, represent the truth. And the truth is, it is not possible to get the flu from getting the flu shot. You might have come in contact with somebody that had a cold or the flu at the same time that you’re getting your flu vaccine, and you ended up getting sick as a result of that."

As pharmacists we have a unique opportunity this year, particularly because of the tragic number of deaths and hospitalizations last year due to the flu. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams publicly announced they have already been vaccinated, in an effort to encourage earlier immunizations this year.

We can spread the word, encourage participation and hopefully help protect more people from a truly deadly infection.