As students return to school with some new supplies in tow (namely, masks and hand sanitizer), they are preparing for a year that will look and feel markedly different than past years. Similarly, doctors and pharmacists are preparing for an unpredictable flu season, where rates can fluctuate in different parts of the country. The CDC affirmed that receiving the flu vaccine or other routine vaccinations at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine is safe. With the prospect of patients seeking to receive additional shots in the months to come, there is potential for a record number of vaccinations to be administered this season.
To speak to how Walgreens is preparing to serve its customers and patients, Dr. Kevin Ban, Walgreens chief medical officer; Tasha Polster, divisional vice president of pharmacy quality, compliance and patient safety; and Kaitlyn Vo, pharmacy manager in Plano, Texas; shared their insights with Walgreens Stories.
What do we need to know about this year’s flu season?
Dr. Kevin Ban: Typically, we look toward the Southern Hemisphere to see what type of flu season they had, and that will give us a good sense of how severe the flu season might be in the U.S. But with so many countries in lockdown, we don’t have a reliable data set. What we do know is that when preventive measures were relaxed for fully vaccinated individuals, people were less cautious about handwashing, social distancing, being in large indoor groups and wearing masks. Cases of the Delta variant have been able to spread more easily.
It’s truly fascinating when you see how flu, cold and COVID cases rise when people let their guard down. The viruses want to live and perpetuate. I know the term “twindemic” has been tossed around because there could be a surge in flu and COVID-19 cases. It didn’t happen last year because people were vaccinated against the flu in record numbers and followed basic hygiene protocols. We can avoid a “twindemic” this year, too, especially if people get vaccinated and continue safe practices.
What’s crucial this year is to keep the pressure off the healthcare system. Usually, millions of people get infected with the flu, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and tens of thousands lose their lives. Everything we can do to prevent the impact of this disease is important since we are still grappling with the pandemic. What makes it more complicated is that the symptoms between the flu and COVID-19 tend to be similar. If you’re vaccinated against both, there’s a degree of confidence that any symptoms you experience are indicative of something mild, and that might save you some mental stress down the line. Regardless, any symptoms you have should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
Like the COVID-19 vaccine, the flu vaccines are exceptionally good at lessening the severity of the disease and the risk of being hospitalized. The fewer people hospitalized or likely to lose their lives, the better. These are preventable diseases and being vaccinated will lead to the best outcomes.
How are Walgreens pharmacies preparing for flu season?
Tasha Polster: We have more than 60,000 immunizers available to administer flu and COVID vaccine across the country. The Department of Health and Human Services extended the PREP Act to allow technicians to not only administer COVID vaccine, but flu vaccine to everyone ages 3 and above. With that expanded authority, we can avoid any challenges with workflow, because a pharmacist or pharmacy technician can give either or both vaccines to a patient.
We are expecting to conduct flu clinics, outreach and community events in medically underserved areas like we always have. We’ll also continue to contact local businesses and organizations to host clinics. It’s something we’re prepared to do – ensure we have the resources in our pharmacies and at clinics – to get as many people vaccinated as possible. We do anticipate that there will be high demand for booster shots, and we’ll be keeping our eye on volume in the stores and working with the CDC to make sure we have enough supply. At this point, we don’t have any concerns about the supply chain for COVID-19 or flu vaccine.
We’re very excited about our updated digital vaccine scheduler, available at Walgreens.com or through the Walgreens app. The scheduler has been enhanced to be more user-friendly and allow a patient to select an appointment time more easily. A patient can schedule their flu vaccine at the same time they schedule their COVID vaccine, plus indicate any interest they might have in additional immunizations, like whooping cough, pneumonia or shingles. Patients can digitally fill out paperwork so everything is ready when they arrive to the pharmacy for their vaccine.
Finally, we’re continuing all of the additional safety measures that we put in place when COVID began. In addition to masks, we continue to require that our pharmacy team members wear a face shield when administering a vaccine, and we ask our patients to wear face coverings in stores as well. We’ve stocked up on all our safety supplies, knowing that we might see an uptick of patients coming in to get immunizations.