Public health officials across the country are encouraging people to get the flu shot as a way to help keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by both influenza and COVID-19 patients this fall and winter. It’s a task that will prove especially challenging in Nevada, where vaccination rates are repeatedly among the lowest in the country.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nevada reported the lowest vaccination rate in the country during the 2018-19 flu season. Only 37.8 percent of people 6 months or older received a seasonal flu vaccine. (For comparison, on the opposite end of the spectrum, 60.4 percent of Rhode Islanders received a seasonal flu vaccine.)
Nevada also had the lowest flu vaccination rates in 2016, 2015, 2013 and 2011.
“We have always hovered at the bottom of the list,” says Heidi Parker, executive director of the nonprofit Immunize Nevada. “We’re always in the bottom.”
That is never a good place to be in the eyes of public health professionals, but the consequence could be especially grim during the approaching flu season. Many measures are improving across Nevada but public health officials are still working to control the coronavirus. An additional wave of flu patients could strain hospitals and health care providers. It could also lead to coinfections in patients.
Last flu season — from late September 2019 to mid-May 2020 — Nevada saw 1,398 influenza hospitalizations and 54 deaths in just Clark County.
On Thursday, the COVID-19 death count statewide sat at more than 1,400. There have been more than 70,000 cases of COVID.
“We really want to make sure people do everything they can to avoid influenza during the (coronavirus) pandemic,” added Parker. “The one thing we always say is: The most predictable thing is that it’s unpredictable. That absolutely applies this year more than ever.”
She joined Gov. Steve Sisolak and local health officials in Clark County earlier this week to encourage all residents to get a flu shot. Sisolak, Nevada First Lady Kathy Sisolak and Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick all received theirs live during a press conference.
Sisolak commented afterwards that the shot was painless.
Pain isn’t the biggest barrier to vaccinations. Parker believes the biggest factor contributing to the state’s low vaccination rates is the lack of access to health care. Nevada has well documented systemic health care issues. More than two-thirds of residents live in a zip code that has been federally designated as having a shortage of primary care doctors.
“We have provider shortages,” says Parker. “Issues with accessing coverage, transportation getting there, time off of work… You can just keep going down that list of challenges.”
Immunize Nevada has a team of community health workers who collaborate with coalitions, businesses and organizations to help reduce those barriers by offering mobile clinics, free vaccines and other resources.
Parker is hopeful the coronavirus pandemic will encourage people to heed the advice of the CDC and local public health officials and seek out a flu shot. But she also acknowledges that the politicization of public health issues across the country is proving problematic.
“There’s always been a vocal minority in our world, in the vaccine world, but we’ve never seen it at this level,” says Parker. “It does make the work harder. We need to make sure people have trusted resources where they can get information. We’re fighting coronavirus and the virus of misinformation. It really has escalated.”
Many are looking to a coronavirus vaccine as the solution and end to the ongoing pandemic. Sisolak over the summer said during a business group appearance that he believed the Nevada economy would not recover to pre-pandemic levels until a vaccine was available.
There are currently three vaccines in phase-3 trials. But the expedited process and general mistrust of the Trump administration have fostered uncertainty about any potential vaccine that might make it out of trials and be approved for mass use.
One USA Today poll of 1,000 Americans found two-thirds do not want to receive a coronavirus vaccine when it’s first available and one-fourth did not ever want to get it.
Parker says Immunize Nevada is prepared to try to overcome those barriers and promote a possible coronavirus vaccine if one becomes available.
In the meantime, there are higher priorities.
“We’re just working to encourage people to get vaccines, the ones we have now. We don’t want to see an increase in vaccine preventable diseases during or after the pandemic. Making sure people are up-to-date is important now while we’re waiting for a coronavirus vaccine.”