In addition to COVID concerns, D.C. braces for the flu

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As the world worries about COVID-19, people in the District are also bracing themselves for an influx of flu cases and health leaders are encouraging people to get the flu vaccine. (Courtesy Photo)

By Katia Pechenkina
Special to the AFRO

While the country is experiencing the highest number of daily coronavirus deaths reported since the surge during last winter, flu season might be adding another challenge to an already overwhelmed United States healthcare system.

Last year the country saw a record-low count of flu cases and avoided the “twindemic” – concurrent flu and coronavirus epidemics – due to COVID-19 related restrictions on gatherings and government implemented social distancing and mask mandates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,675 cases for the entire country during the 2020-2021.

Unlike last year, thousands of the District’s area children are back at school. While respiratory infections, including flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) are usually on the rise during fall and winter, the indoor mask mandate, reinstated since July 29, is still in place. It is still hard to predict how mild or bad this flu season might be.

“It is difficult to determine how bad respiratory viruses will be this year compared to other years, except we should expect it to be worse than last year with children back to school in person.  We are already seeing some cases of the flu as well as other respiratory viruses circulating in the community,” Chief Medical Officer at Unity Health Care Dr. Jessica H. Boyd, said in an email. 

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“We just don’t’ know,” said Toya Carmichael, vice president of Public Relations and Corporate Board Secretary at United Medical Center, a D.C. government hospital serving Southeast neighborhoods of the city and nearby Maryland communities. As of right now there are no plans to set up mobile flu clinics this year, said Carmichael.

She noted that last year they hardly saw any flu cases.

While the District is focusing on making the COVID-19 vaccines, including booster shots, and coronavirus testing available for everyone, there has not been a city-wide campaign on distributing influenza vaccines.

Maurice Cook, founder and executive director of Serve Your City, a D.C.- based community organization said that the work of setting up a flu vaccination clinic would add more challenges for non-profit organizations.

“We are fighting so hard to encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccination. There hasn’t been this campaign to encourage Black and Brown families to get flu shots. There is a necessary campaign and fight to get Black and Brown folks the COVID-19 vaccination and it just feels like if you throw the flu shot on top of that, that will make our work even harder,” Cook said.

Black and Latino communities have been hit disproportionately hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus intensified racial, health and housing disparities while the trust in federal and local government remained at a low level at many of these communities, due to years of structural and systemic obstacles to health care services.

“The city needs to make sure to prioritize those who are most marginalized to build trust amongst those who are the most hesitant to receive the vaccines,” Cook said.

“The city has to keep working on making sure that it is more affordable for everyone, that there is access to preventative health care, that there’s no food or housing scarcity, making sure that it doesn’t use the police to criminalize Black and brown people and that all your children have a real equitable educational opportunity. These are the things that build trust,” he said.

While the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the Black community makes up 46 percent of the District’s population, only 33 percent of Black residents of D.C. are fully vaccinated, according to the latest COVID-19 vaccination data provided by the local government.

The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older get vaccinated against the flu by the end of October, according to its summary of recommendations for immunization practices for 2021-2022.

“An annual flu vaccination is the best way to protect against the flu and getting a flu vaccine helps protect yourself and others in the community who may be more susceptible to severe disease from getting the flu. The more people who are immunized the higher the likelihood of greater protection for all,” Dr. Boyd said. 

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