RHODE ISLAND—Officials from the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) announced Tuesday a season-long campaign to vaccinate 90 percent of the Rhode Island population against the flu. The announcement, made as part of a larger media event to promote vaccination, was the beginning of a much larger campaign to prepare the state against the possibility of hospital overcrowding and a strain on the state’s medical resources as flu season combines with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“While a flu vaccination rate of 90 percent is an ambitious goal, flu vaccination will be more important than ever this year,” said RIDOH director of health Nicole Alexander-Scott. “The simple choice to get a flu shot and make sure that your loved ones get their flu shots is a powerful step to help keep all of Rhode Island healthy and safe.”

Flu shots will become available at hundreds of clinics, doctors offices, pharmacies and schools in the coming weeks, and will also be made available for asymptomatic residents at COVID-19 testing sites. The flu vaccine lessens the chances that someone will have to deal with any of the myriad of health consequences of the flu and, it is hoped, will serve to ease the burden on the state’s healthcare system as it continues to respond to COVID-19.

“Our health equity zones and other community partners throughout the state are working to make flu shots as easy and convenient as possible,” Alexander-Scott said. “This is especially true in our communities that have been hit harder by COVID-19.”

“With the flu vaccine,” Alexander-Scott added, “we have the ability to give ourselves and our family members an extra layer of protection.”

Flu vaccinations are generally recommended by the state for everyone over six months of age, but could prove especially important for high-risk groups such as the elderly, healthcare workers, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions such as asthma, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Preventing such vulnerable groups from becoming ill to begin with, and thus increasing their susceptibility to Coronavirus, is also vital to the fight against COVID-19.

“With the current COVID-19 pandemic,” said health and human services secretary Womazetta Jones, “getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever this year to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.”

Rhode Island is frequently ranked among the most vaccinated states in the country. During the 2018-19 flu season, for example, some 60 percent of all Rhode Islanders were vaccinated against the flu, including 78 percent of children and 56 percent of adults. During that same season, there were 1,032 hospitalizations due to the flu and 39 flu-associated deaths. During the 2019-20 flu season, when strict community mitigation measures were in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and when patterns of healthcare utilization were atypical, Rhode Island saw 950 hospitalizations and 20 flu-associated deaths.

Many symptoms of the flu mirror symptoms of COVID-19. Both viruses can cause fever, cough, shortness of breath, nasal congestion, muscle aches and fatigue.

The state has acquired some 150K more doses of the flu vaccine than normal, and has made further preparations to purchase additional vaccines should the situation require it. This year’s vaccine protects against two influenza A strains (including the H1N1 strain) and two influenza B strains, based on which strains scientists expect to be circulating in the community during the season.

Further, two “enhanced” vaccines will be made available for seniors, both of which help create a higher immune response.

“If we all do our part to get vaccinated for the flu,” Jones said, “we can help save lives and reduce the burden on our healthcare system, where staff are working tirelessly to respond to COVID-19.”

After receiving a flu shot, it is possible that some people may experience a slight ache or develop a low-grade fever. This is due to the body developing an immune response to the flu virus. Health professionals from the state reiterated that these mild side effects are much less significant than the actual flu, which causes most people to stay in bed for a week, and further explained that, despite these symptoms, people cannot get the flu from the flu shot.

In addition to getting vaccinated against the flu, RIDOH is encouraging residents to practice the “Three Ws”: Wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.

RIDOH also underscored that there were numerous other things people could do to help mitigate the possibility of spreading the flu as well. Such steps include covering coughs and sneezes to prevent others from getting sick by coughing or sneezing into the elbow; Disinfecting high-touch surfaces such as counters, desks, doorknobs, light switches and sinks; Avoiding touching the eyes, nose or mouth; As well as getting plenty of sleep, being physically active, managing stress, drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious foods.

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