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Officials urge all to get flu shot

  • People line up for flu shots on Nov. 18, 2004, at the American Legion post in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2020 8:50:28 PM
Modified: 8/24/2020 9:03:16 AM

WEST LEBANON — As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, Upper Valley public health advocates are urging people to get their flu shots this year— although how they get them is likely to differ from years past.

It’s “really, really important that we get as many people as possible vaccinated against seasonal flu,” said Alice Ely, the director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, during a virtual council meeting on Friday.

Some of the symptoms of seasonal flu, such as fever, cough and fatigue, are similar to those of COVID-19 and hospital beds could fill quickly if both illnesses become widespread at the same time, Ely said. The flu season in the U.S. typically includes the fall and winter, with case numbers peaking between December and February, and health officials have said COVID-19 case numbers could rise as schools reopen this fall as they have in other parts of the country.

In order to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19, flu shots may be administered in a drive-through fashion familiar to people who have gotten COVID-19 tests that way in recent months, or through in-person clinics with COVID-19 precautions in place.

Changing the way the flu clinics work will take “many, many hands,” Ely said. “I won’t say in this case it will be light work.”

In a typical year, the New London-based Lake Sunapee Region VNA & Hospice conducts 50 flu clinics, including 30 for the public and the other 20 at private senior living facilities, said Jeana Newborn, the group’s marketing and community outreach manager.

But this year, Newborn said she expects the group will do just 15, and it’s not yet clear where or when those will take place. Providing services of any kind in congregate living facilities that house seniors, who may be at greater risk of developing serious symptoms due to COVID-19, has become more difficult or impossible, Newborn said.

The organization is looking for places that can accommodate a lot of people; allow for appropriate COVID-19 screening, social distancing, mask wearing and disinfecting; and have separate entrances and exits to allow for a smooth flow of people, Newborn said. Drive-through sites also are being considered, she said, though those are complicated by the needs to set up tents and have a sufficiently large parking lot.

While clinics would normally get going in early September, this year they won’t start until late September at the earliest, Newborn said. They’ll be sure to get the word out “as soon as we have some finalized plans,” she said.

Ely said she didn’t expect vaccines would be widely available until after Oct. 1. She said she expects that Dartmouth-Hitchcock will operate some of its larger flu clinics in a drive-through manner, and the Public Health Council will run five or six clinics outside of the center of the Upper Valley with the assistance of medical students from the Geisel School of Medicine.

In addition, Ely said school-based flu clinics will be serving children throughout the region. School-based flu clinics in New Hampshire plan to use a drive-through model to administer shots, said Barbara Farnsworth, manager for community health improvement at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, during the Public Health Council’s meeting.

While school-based flu clinics have typically taken place in more than 40 schools on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley, this year there will be just one per district, so nine or 10 for the region, Farnsworth said. They will be open to any child between the ages of 4 and 19, regardless of their town or state of residence, she said.

On the Vermont side of the Upper Valley, at least 24 schools will be hosting some form of a flu clinic this year, something they haven’t done in the past, Ely said.

Distributing the flu vaccine also is on the minds of hospital leaders. Dr. Joseph Perras, the CEO of Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor, told state regulators at a virtual budget hearing on Thursday that his hospital is pushing for “early and aggressive” flu vaccinations this year.

“I think it’s an imperative,” he said.

Mt. Ascutney will be offering flu shots by appointment through its clinics, and is also working with area schools and senior living facilities to distribute the vaccine to children, teachers and the vulnerable elderly, said Jill Lord, Mt. Ascutney’s director of community health.

“We’re still working on how we can do it,” Lord said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Vermonters without health insurance can get vaccinated for flu and other preventable diseases for free at monthly clinics at their local Health Department office, including those in White River Junction and Springfield, Vt. Some pharmacies around the region also offer flu shots.

Changing the way the flu clinics operate this fall may be a test run for the future, Ely said.

It’s “going to be an important practice for those of us who will be in the mix of providing (a) COVID vaccine when it becomes available,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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