HealthBeat Flu Vaccine (copy)

While the flu shot won’t protect you against COVID-19, it’s still an important step to help avoid contracting the flu and experiencing potential complications, such as the need for in-person medical visits.

Colorado health officials are emphasizing vaccinations and preparedness ahead of a flu season that could exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic and the stressed health care system fighting it.

The two diseases — influenza and COVID-19 — are both respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms: cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue. They both can be particularly deadly for the elderly, and the flu season begins this month, just as coronavirus cases are spiking in Colorado and elsewhere in the United States.

Mitigating the spread of flu this year serves not only to keep more Coloradoans healthy, but it'll free up hospital space for any potential COVID surges while making it easier to identify COVID in patients with overlapping symptoms, officials said. What's more, testing for both the flu and COVID takes time, stalls treatment and eats up resources — particularly testing supplies — that were scarce in the early days of the pandemic. Vaccinating will simplify all of that, officials said.

"Since the symptoms of COVID and flu are so similar, we anticipate flu-like symptoms could stress the COVID testing supplies and capacity because people will likely run to get COVID tested first," said Karen Miller, the immunization nurses manager at Tri-County Public Health.

But Miller said if flu can be prevented via vaccination, there would be less stress on testing resources.

Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for the state Department of Public Health and Environment, said at a news conference earlier this month that 3,500 Coloradoans were hospitalized last year because of influenza. 

"Having two respiratory viruses hitting us at the same time, like two hurricanes hitting us at the same time, is a big deal," he said.

Dr. Judith Shlay, associate director of Denver Public Health, said Colorado has more flu vaccinations for uninsured and underinsured people than ever before. That's a product of both the emphasis on the flu and the acknowledgement of how many people lost their jobs and their insurance over the past seven months.

Officials said earlier the state health department had received nearly 294,000 more doses of the vaccine than its normal order of roughly 5,000. It also had more than 313,000 pediatric doses. 

The distribution of the vaccines may provide a roadmap for how public health officials approach doling out a COVID-19 vaccine. Beyond the traditional settings of doctors' offices and pharmacies, the nontraditional routes being explored now, such as shelters, fire stations and schools, can all be important path-clearing for future distribution of a vaccine to underserved areas, officials said. 

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