Every year, health care professionals encourage anyone six months and older who is able to receive vaccines to get a flu shot. This year, Washtenaw County providers are ramping up flu vaccination efforts even more than usual due to the extra complications that could arise while managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Julie Ishak, chief nursing officer at Michigan Medicine, says flu vaccines are especially crucial this season to protect individuals from contracting both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. Additionally, the flu vaccine can help prevent serious cases of flu that lead to hospitalization, which could leave doctors and nurses to focus more energy on treating patients with COVID-19.
"It's important to get the flu vaccine because it helps with symptoms not becoming too serious," Ishak says. "And it's important so we don't overwhelm our health care teams where we're combatting COVID."
The FDA and other health professionals say flu shots should be received at the beginning of flu season, ideally before the end of October. However, receiving the shot later is better than never.
"In the end, we want as many people vaccinated as possible," Ishak says.
To expand and speed up flu vaccinations in the area, Michigan Medicine is scheduling flu shot appointments, hosting drive-through vaccinations at local schools and churches, and encouraging all patients to receive the flu vaccine during their next scheduled appointment with Michigan Medicine, regardless of the visit's purpose.
The Washtenaw County Health Department is also hosting additional drive-through vaccinations and providing shots at no cost. Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, Washtenaw County Health Department communications representative, says the county's goal is to bridge the gap for county residents who don't have health insurance.
A drive-through flu vaccine is administered in the Washtenaw County Health Department parking lot in Ypsilanti.
The flu vaccine is covered by most health care plans, according to the Washtenaw County Health Department. However, results from the 2018 American Community Survey show 3.9% of Washtenaw County residents do not have health insurance. That number varies by geography and race. It's estimated 5.6% of Black/African-American residents and 8.6% of Hispanic/Latino residents do not have health insurance.
"We're working very hard to fill that gap and make the flu vaccine more accessible this year," Ringler-Cerniglia says.
Those without insurance who need additional assistance can visit Washtenaw Health Plan's website. If someone has insurance, Ringler-Cerniglia says they should visit a doctor's office, community flu vaccine event, or pharmacy to receive the flu vaccine so the county's drive-through vaccinations can be available for people without insurance.
In addition to the flu shot, health professionals encourage people to continue social distancing, wearing masks, and frequently washing their hands to limit the spread of the flu this winter. The current COVID-19 precautions are helpful, Ishak says, but will be critical during flu season.
"As we move through the fall and winter months, it's important that people take mask-wearing to the next level," Ishak says.
Additionally, the best way to prevent the spread of the flu and COVID-19 is to stay home, especially if someone is feeling unwell, Ringler-Cerniglia says.
"It decreases the spread anytime you're keeping distance from folks who are ill or potentially ill," Ringler-Cerniglia says. "People should also stay home if they're sick. That's true with COVID and with the flu."
The Washtenaw County Health Department will track flu cases throughout the county this season along with COVID-19 cases. For a complete list of local flu vaccine events, visit the health department's website.
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe.