With influenza season approaching, a Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) official says flu shots are more important than ever this year to help protect Wyoming residents from influenza as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“We consider flu shots to be the first and most important step in flu protection,” said Dr. Alexia Harrist, state health officer and state epidemiologist with WDH.
“Everyone six months of age and older should receive a flu shot. Flu viruses change frequently, so the vaccine is updated every season,” she said. “Flu vaccines are safe and reduce illness, hospitalizations and deaths.”
Although most healthy people recover from the flu and COVID-19, they can spread both viruses to those who are at high risk for serious complications. “We’ve been asking people to think of others with our coronavirus-related recommendations this year,” Harrist said. “We are also asking them to help themselves and others by getting flu shots. It won’t help prevent COVID-19, but is a simple and important step in flu prevention.”
While WDH epidemiologists label the 2019-20 flu season as severe, the 12 influenza-related deaths reported among Wyoming residents was lower than during the past few seasons.
Harrist said influenza B viruses were dominant at first during the previous season. “Influenza A, which is typically associated with more deaths, had started to take over in the period leading up to the recognition of COVID-19 as a concern,” she said. “Reported flu activity dropped sharply in March as COVID-19 concerns and restrictions went into effect. Because they are both contagious respiratory illnesses, the restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 also likely lessened the impact of influenza.”
“As we approach a new flu season, we know flu viruses will circulate while COVID-19 remains a threat,” Harrist said. “Because there are fewer restrictions in Wyoming now than in the spring, we are concerned about the potential harm to our residents and strain on our healthcare system from the combined threat of both influenza and COVID-19.”
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes lungs. Symptoms, which come on suddenly, include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, extreme tiredness and muscle or body aches.
Harrist acknowledged the symptoms for both influenza and COVID-19 are much the same. “Both flu and COVID-19 can result in serious illness. Testing is essential. It helps guide treatment and response decisions,” she said. The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory expects to offer testing that can detect influenza or COVID-19 from the same sample.
Flu vaccines are especially important for those vulnerable populations which include: young children; pregnant women; people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart and lung disease; and people 65 years and older. Healthcare workers and people who may live with, care for, or are in contact with high risk individuals or infants six months of age and under, should also get the flu vaccine.
Harrist explained that it takes about two weeks after receiving the vaccine for it to offer protection. “If someone waits to get their flu shot until after a family member, friend or coworker has caught the illness, they may not be protected,” she said.
Influenza vaccines are available in many locations, including local public health nursing offices, workplaces, doctors’ offices, pharmacies and retail stores and are covered by most insurance plans. In addition, Wyoming’s public vaccine programs, which are available at participating providers, help protect some adults and children from vaccine-preventable diseases, such as influenza, at little to no cost for eligible patients.