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Free Colorado Springs flu vaccine clinic seeks to slow virus' march

By: Chhun Sun
January 28, 2018 Updated: January 29, 2018 at 6:36 am
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Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in partnership with Westside Cares held a free flu shot clinic at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Sunday, January 28, 2018. A four-year-old named Caleb gets held by his mom while waiting for his shot. Colorado's influenza season has been a tough one this year. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

With the flu epidemic engulfing the country - and some health officials predicting the worst is still ahead - Colorado Springs firefighters and local nurses teamed up to try to stem the virus' march.

The Penrose-St. Francis Neighborhood Nurse Centers and the Colorado Springs Fire Department sponsored a free clinic Sunday to administer vaccines and remind residents - especially the most vulnerable - that it's not too late to get a shot.

Since the beginning of the flu season in October, 37 children nationwide have died from it, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. One of those was in El Paso County, the county's first flu-related child death since 2013 and the only one in the state, health officials said.

Like the rest of the country, El Paso County has seen doctor visits soar because of the flu. As of Jan. 20, the county recorded 285 hospitalizations - compared with 371 during the entire 2016-17 flu season, said Danielle Oller, a county public health spokeswoman.

The worst flu season in nearly a decade has been exacerbated by the dominant H3N2 strain, which is deadlier than H1N1 and other flu viruses because it mutates faster, health experts say. The strain is especially deadly to the very young and very old.

Hospital stays and deaths from the flu among the elderly haven't been as high as in some recent flu seasons. However, hospitalization rates for people 50 to 64 - baby boomers, mostly - has been unusually high, CDC officials said in the report, which covers the week ending Jan. 20.

Vaccine effectiveness has dropped to 30 percent from the usual 40 percent to 60 percent because of the strain's ability to mutate, the county's medical director, Christine Nevin-Woods, told The Gazette this month.

"Most people believe that flu vaccines and vaccines in general are 100 percent effective, and that's not true," she said. "Nothing is perfect."

According to The New York Times, this flu season is on track to meet or surpass the 2014-15 season, when 34 million Americans were affected, citing CDC data. Last week, 1 in 15 doctor visits were for symptoms of the flu. That's the highest level since the swine flu pandemic in 2009. The government doesn't track every flu case but comes up with estimates; one measure is how many people seek medical care for fever, cough, aches and other flu symptoms.

A bad flu season can kill as many as 56,000 people nationwide.

Because it has also killed younger and otherwise healthy adults, this year's flu has been compared with the 1918-19 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide. More people died from the disease, known as the "Spanish flu" because it was mistakenly though to have originated in Spain, than in all the years of World War I or four of the deadliest years of the "Black Plague" during the Middle Ages.

In 1918, scientists believe, a human flu virus combined with a bird flu, creating a strain for which people had developed no immunity against.

Based on patterns in past seasons, the virus is starting to slow down. There are some places, like California, where the season seems to be easing, CDC officials said.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, there have been 2,366 influenza-related hospital visits in the state. From Dec. 30-Jan. 5, visits surpassed 400. Three weeks later, hospitalizations dropped to under 200.

At Sunday's free clinic at Sacred Heart Church in Old Colorado City for anyone ages 4 and up, there were about 175 vaccines available. The program has administered more than 1,250 shots through about 30 free clinics in the Colorado Springs area.

Event organizers urged those with the flu to stay home for at least a day. Symptoms include a high fever, severe headaches and body aches, chest discomfort, extreme tiredness, coughing and a sore throat.

"It's not something you can work through," said Cynthia Wacker, an outreach coordinator for the hospital's Neighborhood Nurse Centers. "It puts you down in bed."

The flu season typically runs from October to May.

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Visit vaccinefinder.org for vaccine locations and information.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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