By Joycelyn Cabrera/Cronkite News | Sept. 15, 2020
WASHINGTON – Just more than two in five Arizona adults got a flu shot last year, a number state officials are desperate to improve on before the onset of both influenza and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic this fall.
State officials late last month announced plans to increase Medicaid funding for flu shots, let some pharmacists administer the shots and make them available along with COVID-19 testing in an effort to head off a surge on hospitalizations from one or both of the viruses.
“The purpose for having a concerted effort to get people vaccinated is to ensure that we don’t run into a situation like July where we were over capacity in our hospital system,” said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association.
That was echoed by Holly Ward, spokesperson for the Arizona Hospitals Association, who said officials “are encouraging folks to get the flu shot to try to prevent any surge on our hospital facilities.”
But fewer than half of the adult population nationally was vaccinated during the 2018-2019 flu season, and Arizona’s numbers were even lower during that period, the latest for which numbers are available. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that 45.3% of U.S. adults age 18 and up got flu shots during the 2018-2019 season, compared to just 42.6% for Arizona adults.
“It’s difficult to tell what the response will be each year” to the call for people to get vaccinated, said Dr. Daniel Derksen, director of the University of Arizona Center for Rural Health. “You want to protect those vulnerable populations.”
Despite some people treating it as “just the flu,” the virus can be deadly: Influenza and pneumonia combined to be the eighth-leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2017, when they killed 55,672 people. In Arizona, they were the 10th-leading cause of death in 2018, with more than 1,116 victims.
The CDC also estimated that as many as 740,000 hospitalizations nationwide from last October to this April may have been for influenza and pneumonia patients. In Arizona, 10% of hospital visits were due to “influenza-like illness” during the peak of the 2019-2020 flu season, according to a report by the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Dr. Cara Christ, the department’s director, cited the possibility of a surge in hospitalizations when she joined Gov. Doug Ducey on Aug. 31 to announce plans to combat flu season during the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, what Ducey called a potential “perfect storm” of health problems.
Under the plan, the state will increase payments by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System – the state’s Medicaid program – to health care providers who offer flu shots to Medicaid recipients. It will also let certified pharmacists give flu shots to children covered by AHCCCS, offer a $10 gift card to recipients who get a flu shot, and make the vaccinations available at COVID-19 testing sites.
Humble said that state lawmakers have pushed in recent years “to expand the scope of practice for pharmacists so that they can provide vaccines.”
“That opens up a lot of possibilities for people so that they can get their influenza vaccine at CVS or Walgreens,” he said. “Increasing the number of access points is the key to make it easier and more convenient.”
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