A large group of people in red and yellow reflective vests huddled together on the Wolcott Town Green at around 9 a.m. Tuesday. Some of them work for the Chesprocott Health District, and others were volunteers with the region’s Medical Reserve Corps.
The day began with overcast skies. It looked like it might rain, again. The grass was still wet.
“Can I have two people to assist moving this tent?” one volunteer called out.
They carried it over to folding tables on the pavement where two registered nurses would arrange single-dose influenza vaccines, alcohol wipes and Band-Aids for residents coming to Wolcott’s drive-thru flu shot clinic.
Many municipalities and health districts have either converted their clinics to outdoor drive-thru events or changed other details in order to minimize any potential transmission of COVID-19.
It’s just one challenge among many that public health experts are facing this fall and winter as they try to curb two infectious diseases and their burdens on the overall health care system at the same time.
“We’re hoping that the social engineering that’s going on with social distancing may have an impact on transmission of influenza. So, fingers crossed that may result in a less severe influenza season this year,” said Dr. Kevin Dieckhaus, chief of the division of infectious diseases at UConn Health.
“Of course, we never know, and the elephant in the room is COVID-19. And we really want to minimize the influenza as much as possible, because we have this other issue that is so big and so very important from a public health standpoint.”
Public health leaders say it’s critical for people to get a flu vaccine this year so that they reduce their risk of becoming seriously ill from at least one of the two viruses. There is not yet a vaccine or targeted antiviral treatment for the coronavirus.
The annual flu season typically runs from October through the spring. Last season, more than 3,000 people in Connecticut were hospitalized and 80 died, including one child.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the flu last year was associated with about 22,000 deaths nationally. COVID-19 deaths are approaching 10 times that number.
Maura Esposito is the director of health at Chesprocott Health District, which serves Cheshire, Prospect and Wolcott. In recognizing the importance of delivering flu vaccines to residents this year, Esposito said drive-thru events are one of the safest ways to do it.
“We don’t want to put anybody more at risk than they are right now in the pandemic,” she said.
Kate Glendon, public health specialist at Chesprocott, said timing also became significant.
“We started our flu clinics all in October this year within the first two to three weeks to make sure that we can vaccinate as many people as possible, as early as possible,” she said.
There are a lot of different strains of influenza. Scientists try to create vaccines that will best match the strains that they think will appear each season. That means the flu vaccine reduces illness by 40% to 60% on average each year, according to the CDC.
It may not be perfect, Dieckhaus said, but the protective benefits are worth it because a person will still develop antibodies that can help fight illness.
“Even if you receive the vaccine and you manage to come down with flu anyway, the likelihood is that the case of flu that you have is going to be much milder,” he said.
Dieckhaus and his colleagues have been particularly busy over the last few months managing COVID-19, which is responsible for 59,241 cases in Connecticut as of Tuesday. Because symptoms for flu and COVID-19 largely overlap, diagnosing people will be challenging.
“I think the key is going to be in testing,” Dieckhaus said. “If we can identify anybody who has influenza, there’s a treatment for that. And if we identify someone who has COVID-19, there may not be immediate treatment, but there’s certainly some public health issues in terms of isolation and doing contact tracing. So, it is important to make a distinction between those two.”
The CDC, as well as other scientists globally, have concluded that a person can simultaneously test positive for the flu and COVID-19, though research on severity of illness is limited.
People who are most at risk of developing complications from flu or COVID-19 are the elderly, adults with chronic health conditions and people who are immunocompromised. The flu vaccine is also recommended for pregnant women.
At the Wolcott drive-thru clinic Tuesday, Dawn and Jeff Olsen were taking all the precautions they could get.
“I had never had the flu shot before, ever. Never had the flu,” Dawn Olsen said. “And I’m just nervous with the COVID this year.”
“Same for me, with COVID,” Jeff Olsen said from the driver’s seat. “I get the flu shot every year, but extra reason for this year.”
Residents can check with the state Department of Public Health for upcoming flu shot clinics this season.