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Health officials and providers expand access to flu vaccine as colder months approach


Michigan has a goal to vaccinate about one million more people for the flu this year than it did last year, and so far, we’re making steady progress. 

Pharmacies and health care providers have administered more than 100,000 more flu vaccines than they had at this point last year, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. With a total of 1.7 million doses administered, Michigan is nearly 40% of the way to that goal of an extra one million doses, or 4.4 million total. 


The department, hoping to prevent the collision of flu outbreaks with the COVID-19 pandemic — especially as COVID cases climb — is taking a more active role in the vaccination of Michiganders. Director of MDHHS’s division of immunization Bob Swanson says this is the first year it has ordered adult flu vaccines to distribute among providers. 


“There’s going to be plenty of vaccine available this year, and I think we want to use up every drop of it,” he says. 


Among other organizations, the department is working with Federally Qualified Health Centers — or FQHCs, which receive federal dollars to provide primary care and other health-related resources in underserved communities — to expand access to the vaccine.


At Covenant Community Care, an FQHC that serves about 20,000 patients annually at five locations in metro Detroit, CEO Joslyn Pettway says they’ve been talking with patients about the risk of flu season coinciding with the pandemic.


“What we’re expecting to see is an increased demand for flu shots this year,” she says. “So if you’re educating everybody, you want to make sure you can then, you know, meet their needs and actually get them the shot.”


Covenant is one of 31 FQHCs in Michigan to receive a grant from the Michigan Primary Care Association, which is distributing $10 million in federal CARES Act funds on behalf of MDHHS.


The grant money will help the health centers extend clinic hours, and set up drive-through vaccination clinics and heated tents and trailers where people can get their shot during the colder months. 


Detroit’s flu vaccination rates — and vaccination rates in general — have historically been low compared to the rest of the state, says Swanson. So far, that’s the case this year, according to health department data. Whereas Wayne (excluding Detroit), Oakland, and Washtenaw Counties have flu vaccination coverage ranging from 18% to 25% of their total populations, Detroit’s is less than 7%. 


But at the CHASS Center, which has served Southwest Detroit since 1970 (and as a FQHC since 1993), demand for the flu shot has already been much higher than in previous years.


CEO Dr. Felix Valbuena Jr. says many patients who come in for a flu shot seem to show interest in a future COVID vaccine, too. 


“They’ll ask us, before we even say anything, so is this the one that covers COVID also?” he says. “And we let them know that’s still in process, it's going to be a while.”


Providers at Central City Integrated Health, an FQHC whose main location is on Peterboro Street and Woodward Avenue, are also talking about a future COVID vaccine with their patients. It, the flu vaccine, and COVID testing are all part of the same conversation.


“We have that conversation with our patients that come here for other things, as well as those patients that come here for COVID testing,” says Dorothy Austin, executive director of clinical and nursing services at Central City. 


“[We] let them know that eventually we will have a vaccine, and just like the flu and other vaccinations…it’s eventually going to be very helpful.”

Will Callan, a reporter for Michigan Radio, hails from the Bay Area, where he lived in Oakland and San Francisco and reported for local newspapers and magazines. He enjoys a long swim in chilly water (preferably followed by a sauna) and getting to know new cities. That's one reason he's excited to be in Ann Arbor, which he can already tell has just the right combo of urban grit and natural beauty to make him feel at home.
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