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Cleveland Doctors Concerned Fewer People Will Get Flu Shots This Year

Flu season is approaching, and with COVID-19 cases likely to increase this winter as more people are stuck indoors, medical experts are urging people to do everything they can to protect themselves against both viruses.

It's more important than ever to get a flu shot this year, said Dr. Christine Alexander, chair of family medicine at MetroHealth.

Not only do COVID-19 and influenza often present similar symptoms, but vulnerable populations – such as elderly and the immunocompromised – are at a high risk for both illnesses, she said.

“The high fevers, the horrible, horrible body aches, the cough, the headache – those are classic influenza symptoms,” Alexander said. “So, it becomes difficult to tease out which of these sound like COVID, and which of these sound like influenza.”

Alexander and other Northeast Ohio doctors are concerned fewer people will get flu shots this year because they aren't going to places where they'd normally get them, like in-person doctors' appointments, school and the office.

“My concern is that, for as much as you may want to get the flu shot, you might kind of be held back by the idea that you’re fearful of going,” she said.

To mitigate the issue, local health care providers are hosting drive-thru flu vaccine services, she said. MetroHealth officials are working with area schools that are holding remote classes, such as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, to hold flu clinics for students and their families outside.

The Cuyahoga County Board of Health is also hosting a drive-up flu clinic, said Andrew Heffron, supervisor of the health board’s clinic.

So far, the health department has received a high volume of calls from people with questions about the flu or wanting to schedule a flu shot appointment, he said.

However, vaccination numbers for children and adolescents are already down this year as many parents have avoided taking kids in for doctors’ appointments in an effort to limit possible COVID-19 exposure, Heffron said. The numbers are especially low for children under the age of 2, which concerns Heffron for flu season. 

“We’re worried about the most vulnerable populations, and the babies do fall into that category,” he said.

Heffron said it is encouraging that other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, had mild flu seasons this year.

Early evidence shows this year’s flu shot is a solid match for the flu strain already circulating in countries with earlier flu seasons, Alexander said. The fact that people were already following COVID-19 precautions like masking, which protect against flu transmission as well, also helped those Southern Hemisphere countries, she said.

“I do think we have a really good chance to decrease the spread of influenza, even if it’s a particularly bad match of the flu vaccine to the circulating virus,” Alexander said. “By distancing, masking and handwashing, we really could have a tremendous impact.”

The caveat, Alexander said, is that there has been more opposition in the United States to COVID-19 precautions, like wearing masks, than in other countries.

“We have not had gotten as much buy-in nationally as other countries have,” Alexander said. “We have freedom of choice. We will have people who won’t follow those infection prevention guidelines, and that may prevent us from being able to keep the flu as contained as we could if everyone really did wear the mask, and remained socially distant and washed their hands diligently.” 

Both Alexander and Heffron point to pharmacies as another place to get a flu shot, if people aren’t seeing their primary care provider anytime soon.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit .

Anna joined ideastream in 2019, where she reports on health news for WCPN and WVIZ in Cleveland. She has also served as an associate producer for NewsDepth. Before that, Anna was a 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.