This year, getting your flu shot could be more important than ever. That’s because of the coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming influenza season. This means people could contract two dangerous infections at once.
Greg Stadter, the program director for the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership, a co-op of private and public organizations attempting to improve access to health care for underserved communities, said it’s possible to get influenza and COVID-19 at the same time.
This could result in more hospitalizations. And those hospital beds may be needed to fight COVID-19 during flu season, Stadter said.
O’Rell Williams, vice president of medical affairs for Ascension St. Joseph Hospital, said getting the flu vaccine is “absolutely critically important” this year. He said the body’s “metabolic machinery” is not meant to fight two infectious diseases at once.
“Imagine your body is occupied fighting a war with influenza and suddenly add on top of that coronavirus,” Williams said.
Williams said the number of deaths from COVID-19 could increase during the influenza season because of co-infection. Flu season generally begins around October and peaks in December and February.
Stadter said his group is collaborating with health systems, the city Health Department and pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens on a flu vaccine distribution plan.
He said leaders are asking: “How do we be innovative and not do it [only] inside of clinics, but make it easy and meet patients where they are?”
Heather Paradis, the medical director for the Milwaukee Health Department, said the city is exploring options to make the flu vaccine more accessible, including offering drive-through and curbside services.
The department, she said, is considering pairing the vaccines with COVID-19 testing.
Meanwhile, St. Joe’s will offer free flu shots, as it has in the past, and plans to expand its outreach efforts, Williams said.
Molly Cousin, a pediatrician at the 16th Street Community Health Centers, said it is considering drive-through vaccination visits as well. The health center will be regularly communicating with its patients via text and social media to make them aware of the flu season as well.
There also will be a drive to get more information to patients and dispel common misconceptions.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services had a goal to vaccinate 70% of Wisconsinites during the 2019 flu season. Only 42% ended up vaccinated.
Breaking down the numbers further, only 30% of Latinx and 26% of Black Wisconsinites received flu vaccinations in 2019. Stadter said he attributed the lower numbers for minorities partly to medical mistrust, citing the Tuskegee syphilis study on African American subjects as an example.
He also said accessibility to the vaccine might be an issue, particularly the cost of getting a shot.
“Poverty creates barriers to everything,” Stadter said.
There also is a widespread belief that the vaccines give you the flu, said Mary Beth Graham, an infectious disease specialist who works at the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital.
Graham explained that the flu shot is an inactivated, or “killed” vaccine, meaning that there are no live pathogens in the vaccine. This makes it impossible to get influenza from the vaccine itself.
Jennifer Taylor, a registered nurse at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, said many parents who visit the center refuse the shot because of flu-like symptoms they may experience afterward.
“You can have a slight reaction to it,” Taylor said. “Not everyone gets it, but a lot of people do. It can be like a low-grade fever, fatigue minor things that last for a day, maybe two. But that’s not the flu.”
Ultimately, Cousin said, reducing influenza cases this year will help keep people safer as COVID-19 continues. “If you’ve ever been hesitant about vaccinating, this is the year to do it,” Cousin said.