With the local medical community expecting a second wave of COVID-19 to come this fall, efforts have turned to the seasonal virus for which people can take preventative measures—the flu.
Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. delivered his news conference from inside a CVS Pharmacy Thursday, September 17, after getting his own vaccination.
“Having the flu and COVID-19 surge in the commonwealth at exactly the same time would be an incredibly difficult situation for them to manage their way through,” he said of healthcare professionals. “They urged us to step up our game on flu vaccines.”
Health Secretary MaryLou Sudders said vaccination capacity in the state has been increased by 28 percent for this coming flu season. The state normally receives about 900,000 doses of vaccine, but this year the state will receive 1.16 million doses.
“The biggest difference between the flu and COVID-19 is that the flu vaccine is widely available,” Senator Julian A. Cyr (D-Truro) said in a news conference yesterday.
He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that during last year’s influenza season, up to 56 million Americans fell ill, which resulted in up to 740,000 hospitalizations and as many as 62,000 deaths across the country. The season typically runs from October to April.
The senator said getting vaccinated is not foolproof, but it does offer some protection.
Many experts are saying that getting the flu shot is especially important this year, as it would put a strain on healthcare capacity to have to manage two epidemics at the same time.
Dr. Kevin Mulroy, Cape Cod Healthcare’s chief quality officer, said the vaccine that has been developed for this coming season covers the four main flu strains that were seen by medical professionals last season.
Dr. Mulroy said, even when a flu vaccine is not fully effective against the current strains of influenza, it has been known to blunt the illness if someone does get sick. His hope is the flu season will be mild this year.
All insurance companies cover the cost of the flu vaccine, Sen. Cyr said. Options are also available for people who do not have insurance to receive low- or no-cost vaccinations.
The flu vaccination is mandatory for all students this year per Gov. Baker’s order, and the mandate is extended to college students as well. Homeschooled students are exempt, but students taking part in their school’s remote learning plans are not. Exemptions will also be granted for medical or religious reasons. Students have to be vaccinated by December 31, 2020.
Gov. Baker said approximately 81 percent of elementary school students are vaccinated in a typical year.
“We can do better, and should,” he said.
He said if the majority of Massachusetts residents are vaccinated, the healthcare professionals that many praised as being heroic for their COVID-19 efforts in the winter and spring will not be overburdened with flu cases on top of a potential second wave of COVID-19 cases.
In addition to getting vaccinated, Sen. Cyr said flu spread can be mitigated this year by using the same precautions that are already in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These precautions include wearing facial coverings, washing hands, practicing social distancing and staying home when sick.
During the conference, the senator also addressed the spike in cases that has been reported on Nantucket. The island has had a total of 82 cases since March, with 36 of those cases being confirmed since September 9.
None of those patients is hospitalized at Nantucket Cottage Hospital, and the island has had a single death due to the disease.
The senator said he believes part of what has made Nantucket look as though it has a high rate of infection right now is the year-round population as determined by the census is much lower than the seasonal population.
“That said, 32 new cases is significant, and we’re going to know more with contact tracing,” he said.
He said the current understanding of the cases on Nantucket is they are occurring among trade workers in industries such as hospitality, as well as among people who live in crowded housing conditions.
Contact tracing efforts on the island have been somewhat hindered due to some of the patients not wanting to interact with government institutions and because of language barriers. Sen. Cyr said the hesitation is not warranted in Massachusetts, but the pedagogy of the federal government has not made it easy to contact all residents.
“Nantucket is not just this isolated, rarefied vacation spot. It’s a very diverse place with a diverse workforce,” he said.