Health Dept. urges citizens to get flu shot amid COVID-19 pandemic

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

In order to prevent an influenza epidemic in Puerto Rico amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the island Department of Health (DS by its Spanish initials) and other public health entities informed citizens on Wednesday that both the public and private healthcare sectors are prepared to vaccinate citizens against the flu virus.

DS Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano said that as the influenza virus is around all year in Puerto Rico, it concerned him that people who have influenza, should they become infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, could face severe health risks or even death as data presented to him by Puerto Rico Demographic Registry Director Wanda Llovet Díaz from Aug. 2 revealed that 17.4 percent of COVID-19 casualties had pneumonia or influenza on their comorbid diagnosis, while around 11.2 percent had a cardiovascular disease.

“As we come to see that having pneumonia or influenza under the context of COVID-19 develops a much more critical situation, vaccination against influenza is critical for our country,” González Feliciano said.

Meanwhile, DS Deputy Secretary Iris Cardona, who has worked as a vaccine consultant for 25 years, said that even though the Health Department has reported continuously about the importance of getting vaccinated in order to prevent influenza and its complications, she considers it “particularly important” to spread the word this year as the more common respiratory virus and COVID-19 can “coexist” and present serious challenges for patients.

“Typically, influenza causes millions of infections in the United States each season, and the season is from September until the end of February or March. In tropical countries like ours, these respiratory viruses circulate all year round, as DS surveillance reports show,” Cardona said, adding that influenza can cause from 12,000 to 60,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

DS Vaccination Program Director Ángel Rivera said meanwhile that 204 government healthcare providers have the vaccine available for people as young as six months. He said more than 335,000 doses are available in the Health Department and some 500,000 doses are available for the private sector.

“I make the reservation that people always go to the Health Department and see it as the place where they get vaccinated; we get people vaccinated, but it is for some who are eligible, who are those who have the Vital government health plan or who do not have a plan,” Rivera said. “Those who have a commercial healthcare plan can go to their provider, whether it is a doctor, a vaccination center, or commercial or community pharmacies.”

As for mass vaccination drives, Rivera said that although it is not the most recommended strategy, the Department has 150,000 doses reserved for “directed events,” mainly a drive expected to begin in October reserved for first responders, hospital personnel, and elderly homes. In the case of the latter, the drive will be a cooperative effort with the National Guard and the VOCES Immunity and Health Promotion Coalition.

Meanwhile, another mass vaccination effort directed at homeless citizens is expected.

“We suggest [that citizens] visit their providers,” Rivera said. “We can’t do it as we usually did before COVID-19, which was at coliseums with around 11,000 people. That we can’t do. It’s impossible. It’s not recommendable.”

The Star asked if the DS expects to take other vaccination initiatives such as drive-thru spots or taking reservations via digital outlets given that many citizens fear going to hospitals due to the pandemic. González Feliciano said it was under consideration since such methods for getting people vaccinated have been common practice since 2009-2012.

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