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By Alice Lesch Kelly
It’s a chilly Saturday morning in early October, and dozens of people are lined up in a socially distant way on a sidewalk in Newton Centre, Mass. You might think they’re waiting to buy concert tickets or to have breakfast at a popular restaurant—but not in the age of COVID-19. These folks are lined up for an outdoor flu shot clinic in front of Union Pharmacy.
“People have lots of concerns about going inside to have their flu shot,” says Dr. Xiaoyan Qin, a registered pharmacist and owner of Union Pharmacy. “But even so, I was surprised to see that many people.” She and her staff administered about 200 flu shots that day.
Qin began scheduling outdoor flu shot clinics outside the pharmacy and at other community sites after an immunocompromised customer expressed reluctance to enter the store. Union Pharmacy also gives sidewalk flu shots outside the store each evening between 7 and 8 p.m.
Outdoor flu clinics are just one of the creative ways that providers are helping to make sure people can get their flu vaccines safely.
“It is more important now than ever to get a flu vaccine, because flu symptoms are very similar to those of COVID-19, and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve health care resources,” says Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. The Massachusetts DPH recommends flu shots for everyone 6 months of age and older.
In the past, many rolled up their sleeves at doctors’ offices or workplace flu clinics. But this year, with so many people working from home and avoiding public indoor spaces, they’re looking for safer alternatives. To meet that demand, providers have come up with the following innovative solutions.
Each year Harvard Pilgrim Health Care sponsors hundreds of indoor clinics at workplaces throughout New England. Earlier this flu season, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care sponsored clinics again and added the capability of sending out a vaccine van to certain member sites. The van holds all of the supplies necessary for an outdoor flu clinic, including a large tent.
“As soon as COVID started we began looking at alternatives to indoor flu clinics,” says Jamesie Gifford, manager of employer health at Harvard Pilgrim. “We anticipated that our employer groups would be asking us to help them figure this out.” The Harvard Pilgrim flu team found a partner that had converted mobile dental care vans into vaccine vans that could support outdoor pop-up flu shot clinics.
“With outdoor flu clinics, you had the ability to have fresh air and social distancing. Our hope was to get as many folks vaccinated as possible,” says Anne Goroshko, a physical therapist and well-being advisor at Harvard Pilgrim. “It’s fun to find a new way to offer flu shots.”
When the vaccine van visited Harvard Pilgrim group sites, employers had the option of offering vaccines not only to workers but to their families as well.
Various New England towns and cities are sponsoring drive-thru clinics that allow people to get flu shots without leaving their cars. In Barnstable County, health officials thought a drive-thru would be the easiest way to safely vaccinate large numbers of people.
“The response to our first regional drive-thru was very positive,” says Deirdre Arvidson, a Barnstable County public health nurse. “We gave 590 shots in 4 hours. We had people of all ages and from all different towns across the state, which is what I was hoping for.”
In addition to the drive-thru clinic at its county complex, Barnstable County is also offering flu shot clinics in fire departments, police departments, churches, and community agencies.
In Newton, Mass., appointment-only drive-thru and walk-up clinics have been scheduled for city workers, teachers, and residents in the parking lots at Newton North and Newton South high schools.
“Participants are staggered with appointment times, and most will wait in their cars and get vaccinated there so we don’t have large groups of people congregating in a room together,” says Deborah Youngblood, commissioner of the Newton Health and Human Services Department. “The community response has been great so far.”
In addition to drive-thru clinics, many municipalities are offering walk-up flu shots. In Watertown, Mass., residents can receive vaccinations in their cars or on foot at appointment-only flu clinics in the parking lot behind the public library on Main Street.
“Most residents understand the value of getting the flu immunization, especially this year,” says Larry Ramdin, Watertown’s director of public health.
Organizing drive-thru and walk-up flu shot clinics serves another purpose as well: “It allows us to prepare for larger mass vaccinations for COVID-19 when a vaccine becomes available,” Ramdin says.
Customers can add a flu shot to their shopping list when visiting many pharmacies and even some grocery stores in New England. CVS Pharmacy, which has more than 400 locations in Massachusetts, expects to administer 18 million flu shots nationwide this year, which is nearly double the number given in 2019, according to company spokesperson Joe Goode.
Whether you choose one of these innovative flu clinic venues or you opt to go to your primary care provider, be sure to take some important steps to ensure that you have a safe, positive experience:
• Call ahead to see if you need an appointment.
• Tell the provider if you’re over 65. Seniors typically receive a high-dose flu shot designed for aging immune systems. Providers sometimes run out of high-dose flu vaccines.
• Fill out any necessary paperwork in advance.
• Bring along your health insurance card.
• Wear a mask and keep it on throughout the process.
• Follow social distancing guidelines.
• If you don’t have health insurance, ask about free or reduced-cost flu shots.
• Act now. The flu is a potentially serious disease that can lead to hospitalization or even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vaccine takes two weeks to be fully effective, so don’t wait to schedule your flu shot.
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