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Local public health department says: add COVID-19 to your cold & flu season shots

A COVID message at the base of Aspen Mountain in Pitkin County.
Alex Hager
Aspen Public Radio
A COVID message at the base of Aspen Mountain in Pitkin County.

Editor's note: this story has been updated to include information from Pitkin County Public Health.

While it no longer makes the headlines, people are still getting sick from COVID-19 on a regular basis. And, health experts say that we should assume that cold and flu season now includes COVID as well.

Garfield County Public Health is encouraging everyone six months and older to get both their flu shot and an updated COVID vaccine.

Walk-in appointments for both shots are available on Wednesdays in Glenwood Springs at 2014 Blake Avenue and on Thursdays in Rifle at 195 W. 14th Street, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at both locations.

For kids and adults alike who don’t like needles, GCPH also has nasal mists for the flu available.

Carrie Godes with Public Health said supply isn’t an issue for Garfield County — and that you should get your shot, even if you’re young and healthy.

“And actually I would say that a number of the cases that we’ve seen, the hospitalizations that we’ve seen more recently, by and large are out of date with their vaccines, like the last one being over a year old,” she said. “So that really does show that to reduce the severity of the illness, having that up-to-date vaccine is going to be your best bet.”

Pitkin County Public Health is also encouraging everyone to get both shots, but unlike Garfield, it’s no longer offering flu or COVID shots for free. It recommends that Upvalley residents call their primary care physician or a local pharmacy to make an appointment.

Pitkin County epidemiologist Carly Senst said this represents a return to a pre-COVID public health approach to the respiratory illness season. That also means treating the COVID vaccine like a flu shot: something you should get every year as new formulations become available.

Senst said in previous years, the original COVID vaccine and subsequent boosters reflected a rapid response to a fast-changing virus that people didn’t know much about.

“This time, we really have a clear picture of how COVID-19 is acting, what strains are going to be circulating this season,” she said. “And so they’ve redeveloped these vaccines to target these variants specifically. This is a really cool tool, it increased the efficacy, and this is exactly what they do with the flu vaccine every single year.”

She said people should plan ahead when shopping around for their vaccines.

“We are a small rural county, we have limited pharmacies, so … if you’re going down to Glenwood Springs potentially for a Walmart run,” she said. “Maybe think about that, travel, plan ahead, look regionally for those vaccines.”

Both vaccines take about two weeks to take effect, so Senst said people should keep in mind holiday travel and family plans when scheduling an appointment.

Whether you’re getting a COVID shot through GCPH or through the pharmacy at City Market, you should plan to have your insurance ready. But if you’re uninsured, you can still get the shot, thanks to federal funding.

“For individuals who aren't insured, individuals who aren't covered by that Medicaid, Medicare, there are specific programs that's known as the Bridge Access Program that is providing free vaccines for those higher risk vulnerable individuals,” she said.

Godes said that program is available for those getting vaccines at GCPH, as well as at national pharmacy chains.

Take-home tests are no longer available for free at GCPH, but the U.S. Postal Service will still send four free tests to households, which the public can request online.

This Garfield County Public Health graphic provides the public with a timeline of what to do if they test positive for COVID-19.
Garfield County Public Health
This Garfield County Public Health graphic provides the public with a timeline of what to do if they test positive for COVID-19.

If you do test positive for COVID-19, Godes said you should isolate at home for 5 days, counting from the first day of symptoms. After that, you can go out in public again as long as you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours, and you should wear a mask in public for the next five days.

For those who are older or immunocompromised, Godes recommended contacting your primary care physician to see if you can get a COVID treatment like Paxlovid.

Those who have already had COVID should talk to their physician about when to get the vaccine next. Some people may be able to delay their vaccination for up to three months.

Godes also said that folks should continue basic public health practices like washing their hands to prevent the spread of a variety of illnesses, including the common cold and the flu.

That’s especially true as the holidays get underway and more people start to crowd indoors with extended family.

“One thing that we’re really encouraging is any amount of ventilation,” she said. “I know it’s pretty cold out, so opening a window may not be something you want to do, but even if you’re turning on your kind of cheap bathroom fans that run, any amount of ventilation really does seem to make a difference in the house.”

Senst agreed, saying that layering protection is crucial to keeping family and friends safe from respiratory illnesses at this time of year.

“Proactive masking, when appropriate, is one of the best tools in our tool belt as well,” she said. “So I'm not saying that everyone should mask all of the time. But being aware of your surroundings, being aware of where you might be coming into contact with the most amount of people in a highly condensed area, and considering masking during those spaces or reducing the time spent in those spaces can go a really long way at reducing the risk of contracting illnesses.”

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.