From social media posts to bilingual help lines, Sacramento County health officials are making efforts this season to make sure the hardest-to-reach people know how to get a flu shot.
Experts say widespread adherence to the flu vaccine could help prevent parallel spikes in influenza and COVID-19, and lessen the burden on health care systems. The two illnesses share some symptoms, and an influx of patients this winter could pose a challenge to emergency room staff.
“We really need to conserve resources this year,” said Rachel Allen, senior health program coordinator for Sacramento County’s immunization assistance program.
The county is teaming up with trusted organizations in underserved neighborhoods to reach low-income residents, homeless individuals and others who may skip the flu shot because they think they can’t afford it, don’t know where to get it, or don’t have transportation to a vaccination site.
Additional sites have been set up, including drive-through locations for people who may be nervous about getting vaccinated during the pandemic. Allen says the county had the free flu clinic listing posted in six languages, which is more than any translation effort they’ve undertaken in the past.
“This year has been a dry run for COVID,” Allen said. “We are using every one of our clinics whether they’re walk-up or drive-through … to make it accommodate what we’re going to need for a COVID vaccine.”
Allen says they don’t have exact information on when a COVID-19 vaccine might be available and who it would be distributed to first.
To advertise the flu shot, Sacramento County is working with multicultural sites such as La Familia Counseling Center and Sacramento’s Mexican Consulate to get the word out about free vaccines.
Liliana Ferrer, Consul General of Mexico in Sacramento, said this is an important time for Mexican-Americans, especially those who are essential workers, to be protected from the flu.
“They’re fearful to come out, especially if they don’t have insurance or they don’t know where to get one,” she said. “The Mexican Consulate is a place of trust, it’s a place of safety for our community … free of charge, no questions asked, with full respect to privacy and confidentiality.”
She says staff at the consulate are trying to talk about the flu vaccine with people who come in for a COVID-19 test. They’ve provided over 3,000 COVID-19 tests so far, and administered over 500 flu vaccines since they started offering the shot in November.
Getting the word to families about flu shots is even trickier this year without on-site flu options and teachers talking to parents, said pediatrician Dr. Beatrice Tetteh. She runs a clinic near the Pocket where about 60% of patients are on Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health program.
She says she spends a lot of time educating parents who have doubts about the flu vaccine.
“I have people that come in and they are following advice from their aunties or their grandma or grandpa,” she said. “And not that they're all wrong, it’s just when it comes to medical things, most of our health care practitioners are the ones who are sharing with you these recommendations because we're trying to keep you healthy.”
For some people, it takes getting the flu or knowing someone who got sick to convince them to get a shot the following season, Tetteh said. She expects that trend will continue if a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.
“There are people that believe that vaccines are unnecessary, that our immune systems are strong enough on their own,” she said. “And one conversation I often have with parents about this is letting them know that vaccines are the way that our immune systems get trained to be strong ... I think that there's going to still be people that will not want to do a COVID-19 vaccine.”
It’s not too late to get a flu shot, as the season could continue through early 2021. Experts are predicting that this flu season will be mild, based on trends in the Southern hemisphere.
Find the county’s list of free flu clinics here. They also have an immunization help line: 916-875-7468
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