Spokane County residents seem to be getting their flu vaccines this year at a typical rate, said a regional health immunization coordinator. But it’s a different outlook regarding low numbers for COVID-19 booster shots.
Anecdotal feedback indicates perhaps some COVID fatigue or confusion about the boosters, said Kayla Myers with the Spokane Regional Health District.
Myers said the state Department of Health recorded that 12.8% of Spokane County’s eligible population – ages 12 and older – received the COVID bivalent booster this season as of Oct. 24. For ages 5-11, a booster recently became available, so that data is pending.
King County had 18.8% of its eligible population ages 12 and older that received the booster so far this season.
“There is some fatigue around it for sure,” Myers said.
“What I hear a lot lately with friends in the health care setting is that people either got the booster or were in line to get it, or they have a variation of ‘I have already had my primary series and I had COVID, so do I really need the booster?’ ”
Generally, the answer is yes, around some guidelines such as waiting if you’re still showing signs of infection.
Myers emphasized that both the flu and booster shots are recommended heading into this winter to reduce the spread of illness and its severity.
The Washington state Department of Health also is urging people to get both flu vaccines and COVID boosters. Health experts say they’re safe to receive simultaneously.
The current COVID booster, known as a bivalent vaccine, includes components of both the original virus strain that triggered the COVID-19 epidemic and the dominant omicron versions, BA.4 and BA.5.
Myers said she was surprised at the Spokane region’s recent uptake of COVID booster shots among ages 5-11 at different clinics.
The health district also serves as a vaccine depot for the county, to provide smaller amounts of COVID vaccines to providers who don’t have enough patients to order the minimum amounts. Myers said the agency has seen a recent uptick in requests from those physicians needing the booster and the primary series for immunizing younger ages.
The two-shot primary series COVID vaccines are required before the bivalent booster. Among state residents who received the first two COVID doses, King County’s rate is 82% of its population. Myers said that number is 58.8% for Spokane County.
“It definitely needs to be better to prevent disease,” Myers said. “I think the trends are following what we usually see in Spokane with who is getting vaccinated and who is not. In general, we’ve had lower vaccination rates for schools, the flu shot and now COVID shots than the West Side.”
COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older, regardless of a history of infection. This includes people with prolonged post-COVID-19 symptoms and applies to the primary series and booster doses, according to health district guidance.
The recommendation also applies to people who experience COVID infection after receiving any COVID-19 vaccine dose.
The health district says people who currently have COVID should wait to be vaccinated until they fully recover.
It also recommends that people who recently had COVID infection should consider delaying a primary series dose or booster by three months from symptom onset or from a positive test if the infection was asymptomatic.
“Studies have shown that increased time between infection and vaccination may result in an improved immune response to vaccination. Also, a low risk of reinfection has been observed in the weeks to months following infection,” the health district said. But the health district also notes that other factors should be considered when deciding if shots should be delayed, including a person’s risk of having a severe case of COVID.
Myers doesn’t have exact uptake rates yet on flu vaccines given regionally, which is typically compiled over a year. But generally, she said the county is having about the same participation as it’s had in recent years.
“With flu shots, I’ve seen an uptick in the past couple of years, so it seems more people are getting the flu vaccine when they normally wouldn’t, ever since COVID began, because of that worry of having flu and COVID simultaneously,” Myers said.
“That seems to be carrying over in this flu season as well. I would say historically, we could probably expect about 40% to 60% of the population to get a flu vaccine. Now, I think we’re trending above the 50% mark, which is good, but it’s definitely not enough to keep flu from circulating.”
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. Older people, young children and people with certain health conditions are at high risk for serious flu complications.
In Spokane County, the flu typically peaks January through mid-March.
In recent years, flu activity was low as people followed the COVID pademic’s preventive guidance for social distancing, masking, and other precautions. The flu season could be more severe now that guidance has relaxed and people have returned to typical activities, health officials say. At the end of last flu season, the state experienced an unusual late spring wave of flu, the state health department said.
The flu vaccine is recommended for anyone 6 months and older. People ages 65 and older can request a high-dose flu vaccine, intended to give a stronger immune response than regular flu shots, but if those are unavailable, people should take the standard-dose flu shot, Myers said.
She said multiple pharmacies offer the COVID booster and flu shot, and they’re given at many health provider offices.
“The COVID vaccine is still free,” including the booster, she said. Depending on if a person has health insurance and what type, a flu shot typically is either free or low cost, she added.
DOH.wa.gov has a “vaccine finder” button, where people can enter a ZIP code, and it’s updated weekly, she said.