City fights to contain spread of flu
By Elizabeth Sheeran
It’s been a great year for sales of ibuprofen, tissues and chicken soup.
The national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that flu season got off to an earlier-than-usual start this year, and is now widespread across the country. By New Years, the proportion of Massachusetts emergency room patients with flu-like symptoms was three times what it was at the same time the year before. Nearly 9,000 cases of influenza have already been confirmed in the state, and many more may be unreported.
And this year’s tough flu season means more than just sick days for thousands of people. The CDC said influenza has killed 20 American children this year. By last Wednesday, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino had declared a public health emergency and urged residents to take advantage of free flu shot clinics over the weekend. That news came shortly after the city of Somerville said it had run out of vaccine for its own free flu shot clinics.
But Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said that’s actually good news, because flu vaccine doesn’t do anyone any good if it sits around unused. He said the goal all along was to run through all 720 doses Somerville had received from the state. “We wanted to exhaust the supply and vaccinate as many people as possible, to lower the risk in our neighborhoods and our schools,” said the Mayor.
He credits a citywide campaign to encourage people to get flu shots this year. “We had a really proactive approach, doing a lot of outreach to the most vulnerable populations,” he said. “We started aggressively in October and pushed that through all the way until we exhausted the supply.”
If public officials were hoping to see even more people lining up for flu shots, they certainly got their wish last week when the barrage of news coverage sparked a sudden uptick in demand for the vaccine.
The Somerville Health Department flu clinic was back in business by last Thursday evening, with 100 new doses received from the Cambridge Health Alliance. But over half of those were out the door again within just two hours, since 55 people showed up to get vaccinated, despite the relatively short notice.
And primary care doctors, where most people get their flu shots, also saw a surge in demand last week. Dr. Ben Kruskal at the Davis Square office of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates said requests for the vaccine went up “dramatically” after news broke about Boston’s emergency declaration. “Both our internal medicine and our pediatric departments were kept very, very busy answering calls and scheduling appointments for flu shots,” said Kruskal. “It was a little bit of a surprise, the degree to which demand went up, but it was absolutely welcome.”
Like other health professionals, Kruskal cautions that a flu shot isn’t a 100 percent guarantee that you won’t get sick. It can take around two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect. You can catch a strain of the flu that’s not directly targeted by this year’s vaccine. And some people have weakened immune systems that make them more vulnerable to the virus.
Said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, “Vaccination is far from perfect, but it’s by far the best tool we have to prevent influenza.” Frieden said the CDC has found that patients who got vaccinated this year are 60 percent less likely to get sick enough with the flu to have to see their doctor. He said other common-sense habits like hand washing and covering coughs can also prevent the spread of flu. And it’s important that people see a doctor if they have flu-like symptoms, like a fever and cough.
Mayor Curtatone said the city will keep monitoring the demand for flu shots, and will work to keep the public informed about where they can get vaccinated. As of Tuesday morning, January 15, local Walgreens pharmacies still had flu shots available to the general public, but CVS, and Rite-Aid locations in Somerville had run out of the vaccine and were awaiting new shipments. The next city-run flu shot clinic for adults will be held on Thursday, January 17, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Somerville Health Department, 50 Evergreen Avenue.
The Mayor said residents looking for more information about flu prevention, including vaccinations, should contact their primary care doctor, or call City Hall at 311.
And he had one additional request, for anyone who’s unlucky enough to already be suffering from symptoms of the flu: Stay home. “If you’re sick, don’t bring it to work or to school,” said Mayor Curtatone.