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Six years after losing daughter to flu, Iowa family urges Iowans to get their flu shot during COVID-19

Ayzlee McCarthy died two days after contracting influenza in December of 2014.

ELK HORN, Iowa — Her infectious smile, her spunk, and larger-than-live sassiness are just a few things Amber McCarthy will forever cherish about her daughter Ayzlee.

"She loved to tease--tease tease tease," said McCarthy.

Ayzlee didn't lose that spirit, even when she was hospitalized shortly after her 3rd birthday in 2014, after contracting both influenza A and B.

"Even when she was sick--when we were in the emergency room--she stuck her tongue out at the ambulance guy," said McCarthy, laughing. "So she still had that spunk at the very end."

Credit: Amber McCarthy
Ayzlee McCarthy, right, adored her two siblings, according to her mom.

McCarthy also says her daughter was a lover who cared for others with a sense of compassion beyond her years.

"You know how people describe old souls? She was three, but she talked like she was so much older," said McCarthy.

Now, six years later, McCarthy wants to keep Ayzlee's compassion for others alive, by working with the non-profit Families Fighting Flu. 

The year Ayzlee died, Amber says the whole family had gotten their flu shots. Still, she says everyone should take measures to reduce the epidemic as much as they can.

"It's not 100 percent effective, but it's our only way to prevent it," said McCarthy. 

During her work with Families Fighting Flu, McCarthy has met families who are living with not only the pain of losing a loved one but wondering if it could have been prevented if they were vaccinated.

"I can't blame myself that I didn't do everything I could do to prevent it."

Dr. Rami Vemuri, the medical director of infection prevention and healthcare epidemiology at MercyOne Des Moines says physicians are in a "state of perpetual worry" about what might happen this fall and winter with the flu season combines with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If you are having all of these respiratory tract illnesses on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, one could see that easily the medical system could get overwhelmed," said Dr. Vemuri. "So since we already have the vaccine for influenza, and since it's widely available, the more people we can get to take the influenza vaccine, the less burdensome it will be this season, and the better the healthcare system will be able to handle any spikes that we might see in COVID-19 which we are all kind of expecting with dread."

Each year, in Ayzlee's memory, the McCarthy family, along with their local community, host a flu clinic in Ayzlee's memory. Typically they hand out stuffed animals for children and host them inside the school buildings.

However this year, due to COVID-19, the clinic will look a bit different. They're adapting safely, by hosting it in the Exira-EHK High School parking lot on September 28th. McCarthy says they'll hand out goodie bags filled with dum dum suckers and goodies  from the movie Frozen--two of Ayzlee's favorite things.