Officials Urge Flu Immunization To Avoid Healthcare Overload

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Health , COVID-19

Officials are urging residents to get vaccinated against the flu this season to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system should there be a second COVID-19 surge. FILE PHOTO

A new wave of COVID-19 cases coinciding with the flu season is a nightmare scenario that officials are hoping to avoid by encouraging all residents to get flu vaccinations as soon as possible.

“A dual outbreak of flu and COVID-19 will put a serious strain on our healthcare capacity,” State Senator Julian Cyr said.

Gov. Charlie Baker called the need for people to get flu vaccinations “more important than ever” this season, noting that for healthcare workers to deal with both a COVID-19 surge and flu cases “would be an incredibly difficult situation for them to manage their way through.”

Even though Massachusetts has the highest pediatric flu vaccination rate in the country at 81 percent, “We can do better and we should,” Baker said during a press conference last Thursday. Last month he mandated flu immunization for all children six months or older attending day care, pre-school, grades K-12 as well as college and universities students up to age 30. Students have until Dec. 31 to get vaccinated, but the order has sparked a backlash among parents. Opposition rallies in Boston have attracted hundreds, and a group called “Flu You Baker” has announced plans for a class action suit to black the requirement.

Social media lit up over Baker's mandate. A request for comment on the issue on The Chronicle's Facebook page drew more than 300 responses, with a number of parents saying the order violates their Constitutional rights and they will not get their children vaccinated.

“This should be left for a parent to decide,” wrote Michelle Morris of Harwich. “My kids get all other required vaccines but we choose not to flu vaccinate since the benefit doesn’t out way the risk for me.”

There are medical and religious exemptions to the mandate, and home-schooled and higher education students learning remotely off-campus are also exempt. Elementary and secondary students in districts and schools on a fully remote learning model are not exempt, however.

At last week's Cape Cod Reopening Task Force press conference, Cyr and Barnstable County health officials stressed the need for people to “take personal responsibility” and get immunized against the flu. Cyr said Baker's mandate is “absolutely the right policy” and could help avoid preventable deaths. Last year in the U.S., he said, flu killed 62,000 people, most over 65. At the governor's press conference, state Department of Public Health Secretary Marylou Sudders said the 2019-20 flu season resulted in 40,000 cases in Massachusetts with 6,600 deaths. This year the state received 1.56 million flu vaccine doses, a 28 percent increase over last year, she said.

This year's flu vaccine covers four strains that were evident last season, said Cape Cod Healthcare Chief Quality Officer Dr. Kevin Mulroy, and while not 100 percent effective, it “does blunt it,” he said.

“This year's vaccine appears to be fairly effective, but we never know until after the season,” he said. The flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, and the biggest concern is that the hospital's outpatient facility will become overwhelmed, and mixing patients with similar symptoms will “make it worse,” he said.

Many of the same measures that have become routine due to COVID-19 – wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing – also protect against the flu, Mulroy said. Those practices, plus widespread flu immunization, may keep healthcare facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

“Hopefully, this will be a fairly mild season and we can move on with this until we can get vaccinated for COVID-19,” Mulroy said.

The community sent a strong message of support for healthcare workers during the pandemic, Baker said, and those who respect those workers “should go out and get a flu vaccine this year, so that you and they can feel confident that as they deal with respiratory issues this fall and the potential for a second surge, more and more people in Massachusetts will have protected themselves from having the flu pile on to a potential second surge.”

A number of drive-in flu clinics are being held throughout the region, including this Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Barnstable County complex on Route 6A in Barnstable Village from 8 a.m. to noon. Pre-registration is not required, but forms can be filled out in advance at clinics.barnstablecountyhealth.org/.

Chatham will hold a drive-through flu clinic on Oct. 8 from 10 a.m. to noon at the town hall annex for adults 18 and over. Pre-registration is required at clinics.barnstablecountyhealth.org/. As of early this week, Health Agent Judy Giorgio said the response so far has been “great.” With the state's push for citizens to get vaccinated, “we do expect the numbers to be up this year,” she said in an email. Anyone needing more information or help registering can call the council on aging at 508-945-5190 or the health department at 508-945-5165.

Orleans will hold a flu clinic on Wednesday, Oct. 14, from 8:45 to 11:45 a.m. at the department of public works building at 40 Giddiah Hill Rd. Register through the county website noted above. Those with no internet access can register by calling the Orleans Health Department at 508-240-3700, ext. 2450, or the senior center at 508-255-6333 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Other area flu clinics are listed on the Barnstable County Health Department website; most pharmacies also offer flu shots. Most insurance policies cover flu vaccination, and officials say options are available for those with no insurance.

Opponents of the student vaccination mandate plan to hold a rally at the Federal Courthouse in Boston on Oct. 5.