While the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Kansans are flocking to get flu shots

A person gets their flu shot at a vaccine drive-thru in the Kansas City area last month. Drive-thrus like this are a popular way to get a flu shot amid the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3.

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen 

This year, nurses in southeast Kansas are taking a NASCAR-style approach in the race against the flu.

Imagine a pit crew, said Lori Rexwinkle, head of nursing at a community health center that serves 10 counties. Except instead of speed-swapping tires, this team vaccinates passengers. Got a van full of kids? Just pull it on up.

“We had several different nurses going out to the vehicle at the same time,” Rexwinkle said. “Parents appreciated that.”

Offering drive-thrus this season helped Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas vaccinate about 9,000 people, more than twice as many people by late October as it did a year earlier.

Across the state, clinics and drug stores say they’re giving far more flu shots than in years past. Families are eager for the shots in a year when they’ve been trying to hide out from a deadly pandemic.

It’s a bright spot at an otherwise dark time for Kansas health care. Over the past month, the state saw a steep jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Some hospitals shut down elective surgeries again or ran out of intensive care beds.

If fewer Kansans get the flu than usual, that would save doctors, nurses, supplies and hospital beds for patients with the more aggressive and deadlier COVID-19.

“There’s going to be a lot of confusion” this winter, said Bethanie McDowell. She directs infection prevention at the Salina Regional Health Center. “‘Do I have the flu? Do I have COVID?’ So it’s really important this year that we do get those flu shots.”

Bucking the trend?

Normally four or five out of 10 Kansans get the flu shot, the CDC estimates. (The same is true of Americans overall.)

But health officials see signs that this year looks different. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ordered nearly 9 million extra doses this year.

Big pharmacy chains also stocked up. CVS Health surveyed consumers months ago and found most expected to get the shot, and to do it earlier in the flu season than years past.

“We are prepared to administer 18 million flu shots this flu season, which is twice last season,” a spokesman said in an email.

Some nurses and pharmacists fielded a barrage of calls starting late in the summer. People wondered when the shot would become available — and where to get it. Local employers and agencies asked about holding mini flu clinics.

The demand ate through Konza Prairie Community Health Center’s stock by mid-October. It typically buys 400 to 600 doses of vaccine each season for its communities in Manhattan and Junction City and uses those up over the course of several months.

“We have already gone through that amount,” CEO Lee Wolf said, “and have ordered more.”

In Wyandotte County, Vibrant Health community clinics gave 500 flu shots last month, compared to 200 in October 2019.

In Wichita, Guadalupe Clinic gave 300 of the shots at a recent community event compared to 190 a year earlier. It turned away another 40 to 50 people.

And in Salina, at an early-October flu shot clinic, 300 more children got shots than the previous year.

It’s possible Kansans who normally get the shot simply want it earlier this time. Or, the vaccine rate could go up this year. Either way, more people getting the shot earlier has benefits. Medical experts recommend it before prime flu season hits because it can take a couple of weeks for the body to mount its defenses.

Annie Shelton is a pharmacist in charge of flu vaccine stock and distribution for the University of Kansas Health System. If demand increases significantly this year, the health system should be able to handle it. It has enough doses on hand to vaccinate nearly 60,000 people — about 30% more than last year.

“We’re also, like everyone else in the nation, on waitlists with our manufacturers,” she said, in case more is needed.

The COVID-19 surge

Far from waning, the coronavirus has fed off of people’s impatience with social distancing. The situation is precarious.

In southeast Kansas, The Pittsburg Morning Sun reported in mid-October that the local hospital stopped elective care to handle a coronavirus surge and that facilities across the Missouri border in Joplin had run out of beds.

A few weeks later, hospitals in Wichita and Garden City said their ICU beds were full.

Last month, the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, opened up an overflow ICU. And Johnson County health officials reported the most new cases they’d seen in a single day. They attribute the ongoing spike to people crowding in restaurants and bars and mingling at “football watch parties, birthday parties, camps, weddings and church events.”

This week, Stormont Vail Health in Topeka and the KU Health System said they’re seeing their highest numbers so far of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

COVID-19 hospitalizations climbed sharply in October, as reported by hospitals to the state.

On an average day back in April, when the state was locked down, 104 people were in the hospital with coronavirus. By May, that climbed to 196 people on an average day. Here’s what has happened since:

  • On an average day in June, 170 people
  • On an average day in July, 275 people
  • On an average day in August, 287 people
  • On an average day in September, 304 people
  • On an average day in October, 445
  • In recent days, the number of hospitalized coronavirus patients has topped 550.

Flu is still dangerous

The southern hemisphere saw a very mild flu season this year. That could reflect some combination of the social distancing — including the closing of schools and workplaces — and expanded flu vaccination efforts spurred by COVID-19.

The virus that causes COVID-19 hits more people harder than the flu does, but the flu still kills tens of thousands of Americans each year — upwards of 50,000 during bad flu seasons — and hospitalizes hundreds of thousands.

Symptoms of the two diseases may appear similar, but coronavirus tends to incubate longer and people who contract it appear to be more contagious (at least among adults) and for longer than those who pick up the flu.

The vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick. Rather, it cuts your risk of coming down with the flu or getting a bad case of it. And because they’re not made with live viruses, you can’t get the flu from a flu shot.

Dana Hawkinson heads infection prevention for the KU Health System and cares for COVID-19 patients.

A bad bout of the flu can not only cause lung damage, he said. It can saddle patients with other problems.

“We know that you’re at very high risk of getting a secondary bacterial pneumonia,” he said. “Typically that is staph or strep.”

The last thing you’d want at that point is to deal with COVID-19, too.

“It could be,” he said, “very difficult to recover.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia@kcur.org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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