Coronavirus COVID-19 computer generated image.
The Flathead City-County Health Department and the Department of Public Health and Human Services announced the state’s first confirmed case of influenza on Thursday since April 2020.
The case comes as the state continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is currently ranked the second-worst state in the country for daily cases and deaths per 100,000 people.
Like COVID-19, health officials said getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent catching the flu virus.
“The influenza vaccine is the best way to protect yourself against the flu,” said Dr. Maggie Cook-Shimanek, the acting State Medical Officer for DPHHS, in a news release. “One dose is effective for the full flu season, even if you get vaccinated early.”
The influenza vaccine is recommended for everyone six months and older.
Another public health mitigation measure that can help curb the spread of COVID-19 and influenza but has largely been left out in messaging coming from the state’s top public officials is masking.
“Wearing a mask does help curb the spread of influenza and the flu,” said Devon Cozart, from the DPHHS Public Health and Safety Section.
As Montana heads into uncharted territory with the simultaneous spread of COVID-19 and influenza, it continues to struggle with vaccinations, cases and deaths.
The state has a vaccination rate of around 50%, making it the 7th least vaccinated state in the U.S., according to the New York Times COVID-19 Tracker. On Friday, the state reported 792 new cases and 17 new deaths.
Given Montana’s COVID-19 rankings, Cozart said she is concerned about what’s to come.
“We are seeing a lot of COVID-19 circulation, and now that we are seeing influenza, we do have concerns … we don’t know what is going to happen if someone gets co-infected, and we don’t want to overwhelm hospitals any more than they already are.”
Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 121 confirmed flu cases as of October 16, 2021.
“It’s important to remember that it takes about two weeks for an individual’s immune system to develop protection against the flu virus. Getting vaccinated reduces the risk of death, hospitalization, and illness severity,” DPHHS said in a news release.
While flu cases generally peak in the winter months, DPHHS said flu season activity is difficult to predict.
“There are still many months left of this flu season, which can continue through May. While there were no confirmed flu cases in Montana during the 2020-2021 season, the 2019-2020 season saw over 11,000 cases, including 514 hospitalizations and 41 deaths. The current, low amount of influenza circulation makes this an ideal time to get an annual flu shot,” DPHHS said.
Because of the similarity in symptoms between the flu, COVID-19, and other respiratory illnesses, a self-diagnosis cannot be made based on symptoms alone. Cozart said the best thing to do if you think you have the flu, COVID-19, or another respiratory illness is to see your primary physician, who can order the appropriate test.
Dr. Kathyrn Lysinger, a pediatrician at Billings Clinic since 2009, said hospitals and physicians saw a preview of what flu season might look like when RSV cases started being reported in July as the state began to unmask and not social distance.
“Typically, we see that start to spread when kids are in school, so our typical season peaks in January and February, but this year, we saw it start to peak in July and it kept going. This fall has felt like the middle of winter with RSV,” she said.
RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms and can be especially dangerous for small children.
“With the complication of COVID-19, all the respiratory illnesses that we didn’t see last year all due to masking and distancing, we are seeing those illnesses much earlier,” Lysinger said. While she has seen kids co-infected with RSV and COVID-19, she worries about what might happen in the case of a COVID-19 and influenza co-infection.
Lysinger said she does not know why the state did not see influenza cases reported earlier as flu season and RSV season usually overlap. “It was probably just luck because that would have been really bad, but I think it is just a matter of time.”
Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 through 11 years of age. Once the CDC signs off, which it is expected to do early next week after a Tuesday meeting of an immunization advisory committee, DPHHS spokesperson Jon Ebelt said the state will start administering the vaccines.
The state is has ordered around 25,000 doses of the vaccine to be administered when it gets final approval. In Montana, there are 90,769 children in the 5- to 11-year-old age group. The vaccine will be available at all the usual locations such as pharmacies, hospitals, doctors’ offices, and community health centers, Ebelt said.
Lysinger said she hopes the approval will help free up space in already-over crowded hospitals and curb the spread of the COVID-19 infection.
“Kids are very good at spreading respiratory illnesses, and they have a lot more contact with different people,” Lysinger said. “Any kid that can get vaccinated has a decreased risk of spreading it to a pregnant mom or high-risk grandparent.”
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