The Wyoming State Health Officer is urging residents to get flu vaccinations to prepare for the upcoming influenza season 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, who also is the state epidemiologist.

“Everyone six months of age and older should receive a flu shot," Harrist said.

"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, Harrist said.

“We’ve been asking people to think of others with our coronavirus-related recommendations this year,” she said.

While Wyoming Health Department epidemiologists labeled the 2019-20 flu season as severe, the 12 influenza-related deaths reported among Wyoming residents that time 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," Harrist said. "Because they are both contagious respiratory illnesses, the restrictions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 also likely lessened the impact of influenza.”

However, the state now has fewer restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 than it did in the spring, so health officials are concerned about the potential harm to residents and the strain on the healthcare system from the combined threat of influenza and COVID-19, she said.

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.

The symptoms for influenza and COVID-19 are similar, and they both can result in serious illness, Harrist said.

Testing is essential and 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 vulnerable populations including young children; pregnant women; people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart and lung disease; and people 65 and older.

Healthcare workers and people who may live with, care for, or are in contact with high risk individuals or infants six months and under, should also get the flu vaccine.

It takes about two weeks after receiving the vaccine for it to offer protection, Harrist said. “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."

The vaccines are available at locations including local public health nursing offices, workplaces, doctors’ offices, pharmacies and retail stores. They are covered by most insurance plans.

Wyoming’s public vaccine programs, which are available at participating providers, also help protect some adults and children from vaccine-preventable diseases at little to no cost for eligible patients.

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