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Infectious disease experts push for flu shots to avoid overloading hospitals

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MADISON, Wis. — With the coronavirus pandemic still raging throughout the country, local health experts are pushing for people to get their flu shot sooner rather than later.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, there were 36,175 cases of the flu in Wisconsin during the 2019-2020 flu season. Of those, 4,425 people were hospitalized and 183 people, including three children, died. The CDC estimates as many as 56 million cases, 740,000 hospitalizations and up to 62,000 deaths

Dr. Jim Conway — a pediatric infectious disease specialist and medical director for immunization programs at UW Health — said the flu vaccine, much like COVID-19 vaccines, reduces the risk of illness greatly decreases the risk of hospitalization and death.

“Getting a flu vaccine is never just about you,” Dr. Conway said. “It’s also about protecting the people around you who cannot get vaccinated or may not be fully protected by the vaccine for some reason.”

Conway said protecting others is especially important this year as hospitals continue to deal with rising COVID-19 cases. In addition to increased COVID-19 hospitalizations, some local hospitals are seeing spikes in emergency room visits, partly due to the pandemic.

The potential for a “twindemic” — simultaneous spikes in COVID-19 and influenza cases — is also cause for concern, Dr. Conway said.

“Symptoms can be similar, and transmission is similar as infection occurs through respiratory secretions,” Dr. Conway said. “Infection can lead to the need for more testing, isolation and missed work or school for those exposed to or exhibiting symptoms of either virus.”

Having as many people as possible get a flu shot is an easy and effective way to protect vulnerable people, which in turn is needed to avoid overwhelming hospitals as the pandemic carries on.

Many hospitals and pharmacies are already offering flu vaccines. It’s also perfectly safe to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza at the same time.

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