BALTIMORE – All signs point toward a manageable flu season this year, but despite the positive outlook, Maryland health officials are strongly encouraging everyone 6-months and older to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
As October draws closer, so does the start of flu season, which has health officials ramping up efforts to encourage Marylanders to get vaccinated, and quickly.
Friday, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene kicked off its annual prevention campaign with a free flu clinic at the Baltimore County Health Department. By 10:30 a.m., 250 vaccines had been administered despite the pouring rain.
The state health department has monitored global flu activity all year, anticipating what this year’s flu season could bring to Marylanders, and health officials like what they are seeing.
“We have connections through the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the federal government, to monitor what kinds of flu viruses they are seeing,” said Frances Phillips, the deputy secretary of Public Health Services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
There are two significant factors that have officials optimistic about the flu season this year. First, there have been no problems with flu vaccine production. In fact, the state health department expects there to be nearly 170 million doses of vaccines available across the country.
“There will be no shortage,” said Phillips, who said that shortages have been a problem in the past.
Health officials are also enthusiastic about the quality of the vaccines being manufactured this year. Research indicates that the vaccines will protect against probable strains of the flu.
“Three strains that will be in this year’s vaccine are a strong match to what is continuing to be reported in the southern hemisphere,” Phillips said.
Officials say they have not seen a change in the virulence, or severity, of the flu so far, which is good news because flu activity in the southern hemisphere usually serves as a good indicator for what the flu season will bring to the United States. But Phillips said that since the flu is always changing, researchers in the state’s public health labs will closely monitor flu specimens collected in Maryland in order to detect any resistance or changes that may occur.
Nearly 1,000 people in Maryland die each year as a result of the flu. So despite positive indicators, the state health department remains vigilant in its prevention efforts.
Friday, Phillips joined Baltimore County Deputy Health Officer Della Leister, and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, in a press conference at the flu clinic to educate Marylanders about the importance of getting vaccinated. Kamenetz was vaccinated at the event.
“The seasonal flu is still a major health concern for us every year,” Kamenetz said. “It is first-come, first-served, so don’t put off your visit too long,” he said, referring to the free clinics in Baltimore County.
Pete and Betty Addicks of Parkville, who get vaccinated every year, were among those to receive flu shots at the clinic Friday.
“We get flu shots because of our grandkids,” Betty Addicks said.
“This place is convenient,” Pete Addicks said. “Come on out because they’re doing it right.”
A Baltimore woman shopping nearby saw signs for the clinic and decided to stop and get her annual flu shot and vaccinate her two sons.
“I have to get it done because I work at Hopkins as a doctor,” said Dr. Sarah Hogue. “We all have to.”
Last week, the Maryland Hospital Association adopted a policy to endorse mandatory flu vaccinations for health care personnel in hospitals across the state. Johns Hopkins is one of 18 hospitals that has already implemented this policy.
“It is an extremely strong patient-safety measure, and we commend the hospitals for doing that,” Phillips said, in an interview.
At a 50 percent vaccination rate, Maryland surpassed the national average for flu shots last year. But Phillips said she is not content with that number.
“We’re not going to get to 100 percent,” Phillips said. “But we are pushing to get that percentage up much higher.”