Health officials, concerned that a surge of COVID-19 could arrive during flu season, are urging everyone to get a flu shot this fall.
To make that easier in some parts of the community, the county is working to make sure vaccine is equally accessible.
The effort comes after criticism in the early days of COVID-19, when testing was not uniformly available and data began to show a disproportionate impact of the illness on Black and brown communities.
“We have the COVID work ongoing,” said Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health. “That has paved the way for us to access communities that we traditionally have not done a very good job with.”
He said the county would use partnerships developed during COVID to offer flu vaccine at places such as churches. He also said events would be planned to promote vaccination.
Mendoza, along with Dr. Robert Mayo of Rochester Regional Heath and Dr. Michael Apostolakos of UR Medicine, held a news conference Sept. 24 to stress the importance of getting a flu shot this year — of all years. They also said they are making plans for how to handle a spike in COVID cases along with flu. Only about half of Monroe County residents get an annual flu shot, Mendoza said.
Contacted after the news conference, Dr. Linda Clark, president of the Black Physicians Network, said a goal is to offer COVID testing and flu immunizations in all quadrants of the city. Participating organizations are being put together and will be announced.
Dr. Laurie Donohue, chief medical officer of the Anthony L. Jordan Health Center, said earlier in the week that the facility has started to give flu shots.
“People shouldn’t delay,” she said. “I’d like to see people get them in October at the latest. It’s a good time to get it to last through most of the flu season.”
Donohue debunked the myth that getting a flu shot will not give you the flu. She said the vaccine does not have live virus.
A flu shot is needed each year because the strains of flu change. Even if the vaccine is not a perfect match for what’s going around in a particular year, it can lessen the severity of the illness. Flu is tracked from October through April. In 2019-2020, more than 750 people were hospitalized because of flu. Three seasons ago, the number was more than 1,300.
“It’s taking on deadly importance this year,” she said. The concern is that people who contract COVID and get flu would be at higher risk for complications.
The county has not released flu data by race or ethnicity, as it does for COVID-19. But Donohue said the same chronic conditions – high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease – that can increase a person’s risk for complications from COVID-19 also can worsen a bout of the flu.
The flu vaccine will not disqualify someone from getting a COVID-19 vaccine if one is developed and available for mass distribution, according to Apostolakos.
In past years, physicians did not test as much for flu once the illness was widespread. Doctors assumed the symptoms were flu-related and treated patients as though they had the respiratory infection. Apostolakos said that this year, physicians would be testing for flu and COVID at the same time. If flu is detected within 24 or 48 hours, treatment can lessen symptoms.
For people with insurance, flu shots do not have an out of pocket cost. The vaccine is recommended for anyone 6 months and older.