By Emma Vallelunga
Fall means the beginning of flu season, but with the coronavirus still a major health concern across the U.S., some are contemplating whether getting vaccinated this year is worth the risk. Both doctors and medical experts at SUNY Plattsburgh believe now more than ever is the best time to get a flu shot.
SUNY Plattsburgh’s Student Health and Counseling Center used to provide students with free flu shots at flu shot clinics every fall semester, which was paid for with the student health fee as part of tuition. But during the fall 2018 semester, the health center couldn’t afford to pay the $14,000 for vaccines out of pocket without raising the student health fee for students.
So in order to keep the clinics going while also saving money, the health center began partnering with local pharmacies like CVS and Kinney Drugs to administer vaccines. As long as the patient brings their health insurance information to their scheduled appointment at the clinic, the pharmacy would bill their insurance for the shot, which costs nothing for the health center and does not increase the student health fee.
“We’re only funded by the health fee, which is what [students] pay,” SHCC Finance and Operations Manager Laura Rosenbrock said. “We try to make sure we don’t increase your fee as much as possible.”
Flu shot clinics on campus are usually held a few times at the end of September or early October. The first clinic this semester was Sept. 24 in Algonquin Hall to accommodate social distance protocols. The clinic was originally scheduled for earlier in September, but COVID-19 pool testing became a SUNY mandate, forcing the health center to reschedule with CVS. Rosenbrock said about 300 people received flu shots that day, but due to scheduling conflicts with CVS and weekly COVID-19 testing conducted by the health center, Rosenbrock said there likely won’t be another one.
“We didn’t give out as many flu shots we were hoping for,” Rosenbrock said. “We would love to do another flu clinic, but we can’t. We might’ve been able to squeeze two earlier in the semester if COVID testing didn’t need to be done.”
Rosenbrock also said the number of people getting flu shots tends to fluctuate year-to-year. Last year, about 600 to 800 shots were given during at least two scheduled clinics. Although only one clinic was held this year, Rosenbrock said she believes the decrease is due to timing and the current population of students.
“For our clinic, less students are on campus, and less faculty and staff are on campus,” Rosenbrock said. “I also think some people got it before the clinic. If we had it when we initially planned it, we probably would’ve had more people.”
Doctors across the world are concerned about how the flu will interact with COVID-19 during the pandemic. SHCC College Physician Dr. Deirdre Schaefer said the symptoms of COVID-19 and flu are similar with only slight differences, such as a sudden loss of taste or smell.
“As a medical professional, I usually have to test for both,” Schaefer said. “There is such a tremendous overlap between the two symptomatically.”
Even without the pandemic, Schaefer advocates for getting a flu shot every year in order to decrease the risk of infection, not just from the flu but potentially coronavirus.
“The biggest emphasis that we’re trying to make in the medical community is it’s always been important to get your flu shot, but [it’s] even more so now,” Schaefer said. “We have COVID as this tremendous crisis medically, and then we have flu, and they can happen now together.”
Schaefer acknowledged some people may be too afraid to go into a doctor’s office or pharmacy to get a flu shot during the pandemic but said the benefits outweigh the risks, based on the fact that the flu vaccine is proven effective to prevent infection.
“One of the questions people have is, ‘Can I get them at the same time?’ and the answer is absolutely yes,” Schaefer said. “So if that can happen, what can you do to protect yourself? Well we’re so lucky because we have a flu [vaccine]. It’s even more important than ever to protect yourself from the flu because right now, I can’t say that about COVID.”
When it comes to whether students at SUNY Plattsburgh are too scared to get a shot right now, Schaefer said it’s hard to get an exact number of how many students are vaccinated if they pay for a shot outside of the clinic, but she hopes they know how important it is.
“In the community, I will say that there’s no reason for anyone in Plattsburgh to not get [a flu shot],” Schaefer said. “All of the pharmacies offer it. So I say [to students], please go get one, you will be pleasantly surprised at how easy and efficient the pharmacies are getting that taken care of.”