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With cold weather coming, officials stress COVID-19 boosters, first doses and flu shots

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Vaccine clinic

Kris Voegeli, with Public Health Madison and Dane County, prepares COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-through vaccination clinic.

With COVID-19 still spreading at high levels in Wisconsin and hospital capacity challenged, health officials on Thursday stressed booster shots for those eligible, first doses for the unvaccinated and annual flu vaccines for everyone at least six months old.

An Oklahoma epidemiologist helps assuage concerns about the accelerated vaccine development timeline.

“A booster dose will strengthen and extend the protection against infection, serious illness and hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, a chief medical officer with the state Department of Health Services.

“With cold and flu season right around the corner, it’s important to get your annual flu shot to help keep you and your loved ones out of an already burdened health care system,” Westergaard said.

He said “priority No. 1” is encouraging the nearly one-third of eligible state residents who haven’t received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to roll up their sleeves. “Getting everyone vaccinated with an initial series will have the biggest impact in terms of turning the tide against the delta surge,” Westergaard said.

The state reported 2,340 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, for a daily average of 2,416, down from the recent daily average high of 2,932 on Sept. 20. The rate is highest among children. Westergaard said it’s too early to say the delta surge that started in early July has ebbed, noting that colder weather in coming weeks could accelerate transmission.

As of Thursday, 1,107 patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized in the state, with 321 in intensive care, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Both figures are also down slightly from recent highs, but Westergaard said 96% of ICU beds and 97% of intermediate care beds are in use by patients with any condition.

The state reported another 17 deaths from COVID-19, for a daily average of 14 and a pandemic total of 7,997.

Health officials are recommending booster shots of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for people who already got two Pfizer doses if they are: 65 and older; at least 50 and have underlying conditions such as cancer, diabetes or lung disease; or live in long-term care facilities.

People 18 and older with underlying conditions and those 18 to 64 in higher risk occupations — such as first responders, teachers and grocery store workers — may get boosters, officials say.

Boosters should be given at least six months after the second dose. Boosters are not yet recommended for people whose initial doses were of the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines, but such approval and guidance is expected in the coming weeks.

Many state residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities initially got the Moderna vaccine, so they will have to wait for boosters, said Stephanie Schauer, the state health department’s immunization program manager.

Schauer said about 2,400 vaccinators are available statewide — including clinics, pharmacies and local health departments — to give initial or second shots, or boosters. State officials are checking if Pfizer boosters are being given to people whose initial doses were Moderna or J&J and reminding providers to comply with guidelines against mixing brands, she said.

In Dane County, people with health insurance should seek flu shots from local clinics or pharmacies, Public Health Madison and Dane County said Thursday. Some workplaces also offer shots. Free flu shots for adults without insurance and children on BadgerCare are available through the health department. To schedule an appointment, call 608-266-4821.

Flu activity last winter was very low, likely because many people avoided crowds, maintained physical distance and wore masks to try to stop the spread of COVID-19, Westergaard said. With daily life somewhat more back to normal, it’s hard to predict what flu will do this winter.

“We’re certainly not counting on it being a mild flu season this year,” he said.

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