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'A nightmare scenario': Health experts prepare for flu season amid COVID-19

State officials are preparing a campaign to promote the flu vaccine to help reduce the spread of flu so hospitals aren't overwhelmed by both viruses.

DENVER — The state health department is set to launch a campaign to promote the flu vaccine as they prepare for a potential "nightmare scenario" this fall with both influenza and the novel coronavirus spreading among community members.

"The intersection of an influenza pandemic at the same time COVID-19 is circulating among the community is kind of a nightmare scenario for everyone, schools, clinics, hospitals, etc.," said Dr. Sean O'Leary with Children's Hospital Colorado. 

The comments were made during an update Friday morning from state health officials about childhood immunization rates.

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One issue is that flu and COVID-19 have very similar symptoms, especially when someone first begins feeling sick.

"It's essentially clinically impossible to distinguish influenza from COVID-19 just based on the initial symptoms alone, there's a lot of overlap," said O'Leary. "I think the important thing there is we want to do everything we possibly can to decrease influenza this coming season."

Unlike COVID-19, children are known to be vectors of the flu and could spread it to older relatives who are more likely to require hospitalization. That's why health officials are trying to hammer home the importance of the vaccine for everyone.

"We don't want hospital capacity being challenged by having these two illnesses at once," said Dr. Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). "We know that flu is one of those diseases that people can end up hospitalized and certainly can overwhelm our bed capacity."

"If you can vaccinate a school-age population, that might do a better job of protecting our elderly our grandparents than vaccinating the elderly themselves," said O'Leary. "If we can vaccinate our school-age children at a higher level than in most years, we can actually do a better job of protecting both children and adults in the community."

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Also Friday, the state announced that it had exceeded its one-year goal to increase the immunization rates for kindergarten students. As of June 30, 91% of kindergarten children had received the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine (MMR). That's up 3.7% from the year prior and equates to an additional 2,289 additional students vaccinated, according to CDPHE.

Their ultimate goal is to exceed herd immunity, which is met when the vaccination rate has reached between 91% and 94%; however, there is concern that we could move backward. By June 30, 2023, the goal is to get to 95%.

Vaccine doses for kids and teens entered into the Colorado Immunization Information System saw an average weekly decline of 19% between March 15 and July 19, 2020 when compared to the same time during 2019.

"Keeping up with all of these vaccines is probably more important than it ever has been, said Haley Houtchens, who is a school nurse consultant with Children's Hospital. "We don't want to see resurgences of measles, mumps, rubella. We don't want to see those things come back in the middle of a pandemic."

She also noted that immunizations are still required by schools regardless of how a student is learning this year. That means even if a student is learning remotely, they'll need to provide vaccine records or an exemption form.

"We don't want to go backwards in our immunizations," said Ryan, who is with CDPHE. "We were doing so well before COVID-19 hit, and I think COVID-19 has just shown how important it is to be immunized to keep communicable diseases from spreading."

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