Flu season plus pandemic? Get prepared, says Blue KC medical director

Published October 12, 2020

Should you get a flu shot this year? Yes. Even though there’s a coronavirus pandemic? Yes, especially because there’s a pandemic. That’s the recommendation from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City (Blue KC) medical director Rebecca Gernon, MD, MPH. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever during 2020-2021 to reduce the burden on a healthcare system already responding to a pandemic.

A flu vaccine is essential during this pandemic

“We know as we head into the flu season that our hospitals and health systems are already very stressed and strained from the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Gernon. “The flu can be just as serious for some people and require hospitalization. So we anticipate that the collision of influenza and coronavirus is going to be problematic.” Gernon says there’s also uncertainty about how a person’s immune system might handle having the flu and COVID-19 around the same time. “We have a flu vaccine, which means we can tackle at least one of those problems now,” she says.

Ensuring equity in flu prevention

Gernon is particularly concerned about the potential impact of this year’s flu season on her community’s African American population. “In Kansas City,” she says,” nearly half the COVID-19 cases are in African Americans.” Gernon says African Americans have also been hit harder by the kinds of chronic diseases, such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes, that put them at higher risk for complications not only from COVID-19 but also from the flu.

A recent American Academy of Family Physicians survey found that, compared to other ethnic groups, African Americans have the lowest flu vaccination rate.

That’s why Blue KC’s focus now is education and awareness among underserved communities. Gernon’s message about the importance of the flu shot is showing up across social media channels. She’s blogged about vaccine basics and broken down what might be different this year, including the fact that places where people might typically get vaccinated—such as the workplace—might not be open because of the pandemic. Gernon’s advice: plan ahead and make an appointment with a primary care doctor.

A new tool to track health equity

Raising awareness and providing education are critical, but Gernon says Blue KC is developing a tool to be able to more precisely tackle issues like flu prevention in vulnerable communities.

Blue KC’s community health team is building a healthy equity dashboard. It’s essentially a sophisticated database containing layers of demographic data, medical claims data and location data combined with information about the social determinants of health affecting people in those locations. The demographic data tells analysts about the people who live in a particular area. The medical claims data helps them understand the kinds of medical problems people have experienced, and information about the social determinants of health affecting an area help them understand the non-medical factors influencing health, such as a lack of access to grocery stores with fresh vegetables, or a lack of primary care doctors.

Gernon says the dashboard could soon help the community health team track uptake of the flu vaccine in vulnerable communities. “We could then target those communities who have the highest need with information, educational materials, or even creating flu vaccine clinics in those ZIP codes,” says Gernon. The dashboard is in development. But it’s one way she’s hoping to lessen the burden of flu on underserved communities in the future.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City is licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, an association of independent, locally owned and operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield Companies.