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Agencies are holding drive-thru flu shot events and merging Covid-19 testing and flu vaccine sites, while officials stress that people need to get their shots.
Around one in five people who get flu vaccines each year usually receive their shot through a workplace-sponsored event.
But because many traditional venues for vaccine events, including businesses and schools, remain closed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, state and local health departments have had to devise new public outreach strategies to encourage residents to get vaccinated this season.
“Those workplace events really are not available in the way they would be in a normal year, so folks are trying to find ways to be creative,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.
One noticeable trend has been health agencies’ repurposing of Covid-19 testing infrastructure to meet flu vaccine needs, Casalotti said.
Many local governments have offered drive-thru coronavirus testing sites during the pandemic and cities are now using that same model to offer flu vaccines. El Paso, Texas recently held a drive-thru event at the city zoo that had the capacity to distribute 1,000 flu shots.
Some health departments have also started to co-locate flu vaccines clinics at existing Covid-19 testing sites. In Washington, D.C., the public health department is offering flu shots at some Covid-19 testing centers through Thanksgiving.
Public health experts say flu vaccines are critical this year. The reasons are twofold. A combination of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the start of the cold and flu season has the potential to overburden U.S. public health systems. There is also some emerging evidence that getting a flu shot may reduce the risk of contracting Covid-19.
“Someone who has a really bad bout of flu needs the same resources as a Covid patient,” Casalotti said.
Because flu vaccines are needed every year to be effective, getting the message out about the importance of the vaccines can be a challenge, she said.
The 2019-2020 flu season saw an estimated 39 to 56 million cases of the flu, 18 to 26 million medical visits due to the illness and up to 64,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine rates vary by state, from a low of 41.4% among adults in Idaho to a high of 56.8% in Massachusetts and Rhode Island during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to the CDC.
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed local health agencies to more readily share real-time data about public health issues, Casalotti said, and some agencies now post vaccination rates and other flu-related metrics to keep residents informed.
In Baltimore, where the city health department has set a goal of getting 70% of residents vaccinated, only 16% of residents have received a flu shot.
In Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer got her flu shot during an August press conference, public health officials set a goal of distributing 4.2 million flu vaccinations this year. The state announced Friday that it was halfway to its goal.
“This is great news, but we still need more Michiganders to get their flu vaccine as soon as possible,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief deputy for health and chief medical executive for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. “Every flu-related hospitalization we see this season will put an additional strain on our hospitals that are already dealing with a surge of Covid-19 patients.”
Demand for flu vaccines is on the rise, though Casalotti said it is too soon to tell if more people will get vaccines this season or if those who normally get vaccinated are just getting their flu shots earlier than usual this year. Either way, manufacturers have taken note, and said they plan to make about 200 million doses this year, a 13% increase over the number of vaccines made in a typical year.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.