While most government agencies will be closed Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department will open its doors to provide free flu shots to those who need them.
Dr. Sherri Young, director of KCHD, said the 2019-20 flu season has been particularly severe compared to past years. She and others at the health department hope that eliminating barriers to care will allow more people to access the potentially life-saving vaccine.
“The kids are out of school, so if they have not had their flu shots, please bring them — bring anyone. We will be making the flu shot free of charge for anyone who doesn’t have insurance, is underinsured or who has a high deductible,” Young said. “We want to remove the financial barriers as well as other barriers by letting people come in during a holiday and get that flu shot.”
The Centers for Disease Control reports that the dominant virus for this flu season has been influenza strain B/Victoria, which has proven especially dangerous for children and young adults in the last three months. So far, according to the CDC, there have been 39 reported cases of pediatric deaths due to the flu this season.
In Kanawha County, KCHD started outreach in schools and local businesses months ago to distribute the flu vaccine. Deborah Snaman, nurse director at KCHD, said clinic workers had visited 66 schools and 53 area businesses, giving out about 2,900 and 1,800 doses of the vaccine respectively.
Many schools, Snaman said, also have their own in-house clinics that distribute the vaccine to students.
Young stressed that it is not too late to get a flu shot. It takes two weeks for a shot to provide full immunity, so she urged individuals to get one now in order to protect them for the rest of the season.
The state is classifying the flu prominence in West Virginia as an outbreak, according to data reported to the state Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services.
“We’re in the midst of a terrible flu season. We knew it was going to be bad, we tried to warn people it was going to be bad, and I think people did come to get their flu shots, but we need more people to come and get their flu vaccine,” Young said. “It’s an outbreak and we’re in the midst of it.”
At the state level, hospitals reported a surge of visits due to influenza-like illnesses in the last week of December and the first week of January, according to OEPS. Of emergency department visits in those weeks, nearly 5 percent were for flu like ailments. Data has not been updated since Jan. 4.
This flu season has seen the second highest number of cases reported through emergency departments in the last five years. Per OEPS, flu cases in 2016-17 saw a mid-February peak, with roughly 8 percent of emergency department visits related to influenza-like illnesses.
Young said that while there was a quick spike in cases from the third week of December to the fourth, there’s no reason to believe more won’t come.
“It’s very important to note that we are not through this flu season yet,” Young said, “Just because we are at a high activity does not mean that we have hit our peak.”
Even with the flu shot, it’s still possible to get sick, Young said. It is, however, the most effective way to prevent the illness and lower its impact on the body. In addition to being vaccinated, Young said people should practice basic techniques to stop the spread of germs.
“No. 1, if you’re sick stay home. No. 2, cover your cough, wash your hands. If you have mutual space in the work area where someone has been sick, try to keep that area clean to limit the spread of the disease,” Young said. “We need to protect each other ... we also need to protect the public and ourselves, and the best way to do that is the flu vaccine. We do urge anyone who has not had the flu shot to come here. We have plenty, and we’d absolutely love to give them all.”
Anyone in need of a flu shot can visit the Kanawha Charleston Health Department from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday. No appointment is necessary. The flu shot will be provided free of charge.