Young boy getting a vaccine

Colorado state health officials Thursday put out the word: the time has come to get your flu shot, especially with the dual risks of flu and COVID-19.

Influenza, aka the flu, puts 3,500 Coloradans in the hospital every year, and kills tens of thousands nationally. 

However, Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the 2020-21 flu season will be more like a hurricane season, given that people will be battling multiple respiratory viruses: flu and COVID-19.

He indicated that public health officials are concerned about having another wave of COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. And that concern carries over to hospital capacity, and worries that doctors, nurses, hospitals, clinics and nursing homes could be overwhelmed by both viruses at the same time.

France said vaccinations are key to avoid that scenarios as well as tamping down the flu virus spread.

Dr. Sean O'Leary, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Denver, pointed out that children six months and older get the flu vaccine, and that it's particularly important for pregnant women, adults 65 years and older, people with chronic medical conditions and young children.

He noted that there have been reports that countries in the Southern Hemisphere have see a lot less influenzas during their winter season, with some suggestions that it could be predictive. However, O'Leary said, while "we hope to have a mild influenza season," the example of the Southern Hemisphere is not comparable to the United States. That's in part because countries in the Southern Hemisphere have much higher flu vaccination rates and they went into "extraordinary mitigation measures," including significant lockdowns. Many states in the US either didn't do lockdowns or have rescinded them, and that's already leading to increased cases, O'Leary said.

"We cannot expect that we will not have a flu season," O'Leary said.

Flu vaccines are available for free through Medicare, Medicaid, CHP+ (the children's health plan) and through most insurance providers. Vaccinefinder.org shows pharmacy and other providers for flu vaccines, searchable by type of vaccine and location.

Colorado has significantly ramped up its supply of flu doses in light of the concerns about the dual respiratory virus problem, according to Heather Roth, the CDPHE's immunization branch chief for the division of disease control and public health response. 

In a normal year, the state gets about 5,000 publicly-funded flu doses for uninsured and underinsured adults every year. This year, they obtained 293,600 additional doses for adults, and 35,300 additional doses for their stockpile of 278,010 pediatric flu doses for children who are uninsured or underinsured.

The need for more doses is being driven by rising unemployment, which is costing many who are unemployed their health insurance, Roth explained.

Pediatric flu doses will be available through the state's Vaccines for Children program, which operates in 500 provider offices across the state. The same website also lists providers of free flu shots for adults. 

Another virus that surfaces this type of year: norovirus, which can be contagious at nursing homes, military bases and other enclosed places, according to France. It's not a respiratory virus; it's spread by contact with another infected person. The best way to combat that virus, which produces vomiting and diarrhea, France said, is good hygiene practices: frequent hand-washing and cleaning of surfaces.

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