The importance of getting a flu vaccination

This article was first printed in the Vail Daily on October 8, 2020. The message from public health officials is simple this fall: Keep taking precautions needed to minimize the spread of the coronavirus and get a flu shot soon if you haven’t already.

As Colorado and the rest of the U.S. continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, influenza season is also fast approaching.

“There’s no question, this year in comparison to other years, it is more important to get your flu immunization than ever,” said Dr. Brooks Bock, CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, which runs health clinics in Vail, Avon, Edwards, Eagle and Frisco. “Everyone six months of age or above should get a flu shot.”

One concern is that people could potentially be infected with the coronavirus and influenza simultaneously. That could increase their risk for serious illness or even death and, combined with flu-related hospitalizations, place a greater strain on health care facilities.

In the 2019-2020 flu season, 3,544 people were hospitalized by the flu in Colorado, according to the state health department.

“It is much better to be able to be immunized against one of those diseases, since the other doesn’t have immunization as of yet, and reduce the potential of you getting infected with the flu, which can be a debilitating disease,” Bock said.

Both illnesses can also have similar symptoms, so a heavy flu season could also add pressure to COVID-19 testing infrastructure.

“If someone has a fever, a new onset cough, loss of taste or smell, any trouble breathing, extreme fatigue, headache, muscle ache, all those things except loss of taste or smell are symptoms that both COVID and flu have. Loss of taste or smell is much more indicative of COVID,” Bock said.

Flu shots are widely available locally and public health officials are encouraging people to get one, Bock said.

“All patients who come into CMM offices for wellness visits are offered flu immunization, and we’re advertising it in newspapers and at pharmacies and local grocery stores in a real attempt to get the message out and get people immunized,” Bock said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people get vaccinated for the flu in September or October. According to the agency, an estimated 64% of children and 48% of adults in the U.S. got flu shots for the 2019-2020 flu season. In Colorado, an estimated 70% of children and 51% of adults got flu shots.

A fragile stability
Birch Barron, director of Eagle County’s Office of Emergency Management, describes the local coronavirus situation as “fragiley stable.”

While the county has reported 1,300 coronavirus infections and recently reported its 10th death from the coronavirus, it was able to control a summer spike to reopen schools and allow plans for an economically-vital winter ski season.

“The disease level right now is hovering at a stable level, but it still has blips and can move real fast,” Barron said. “We saw in summer how quickly we can get back to an unstable spot.”

Colorado has reported 74,922 coronavirus infections and 1,990 coronavirus deaths as of Tuesday. Statewide, new infections are growing by about 570 per day over the last week.

State health officials on Oct. 1 reported that active coronavirus hospitalizations topped 200 for the first time since Aug. 9. On Tuesday, state health officials announced a new modeling report that projects continued growth in coronavirus cases and increased demand on hospitals if the state remains on its current trajectory, and warned a spike in cases could be substantial depending on how well people limit the spread of infections before and during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays.

State health officials are urging people to continue to limit in-person gatherings, wash hands regularly, maintain at least 6 feet of distance from other people, and wear masks to control coronavirus infections between now and the holidays. They also said that “getting a flu shot is especially critical this year to prevent the combined impact of flu and COVID-19 on Colorado’s hospitals.”

Locations for Eagle County flu shots can be found at VailHealth.org/Flu.