Pitt offers free flu shots for students amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Carolyn Pallof | Senior Staff Photographer

Many COVID-19 and flu symptoms are indistinguishable, making it especially important to get a flu shot this year.

By Amanda Zelnis, Staff Writer

Jackson Tini, a first-year biology major, said he got his flu shot for the first time last Friday at the Student Health Center. Tini said he didn’t get a shot before because he “never felt like it was necessary,” but this year — amid the COVID-19 pandemic — he found a reason.

“I plan on volunteering in hospitals soon and they require [a flu shot],” Tini said. “But also if it can help manage COVID-19 this winter, I’ll do it.”

With flu season on the horizon and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, experts and health officials are stressing the importance of flu shots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the 2019-20 flu season, about 39 million to 56 million Americans caught the flu, and 24,000 to 62,000 people died.

Pitt is taking steps to get the flu shots to students even amid the pandemic. Marian Vanek, the executive director of Student Health Services, said Pitt has ordered 7,000 doses of the flu vaccine with the ability to order more if needed.

Vanek said Pitt is hosting four free flu shot clinics under a tent at the COVID-19 testing site outside Posvar Hall. While the first clinic was completed on Tuesday, the three remaining clinics will be held on Sept. 29, Oct. 13 and Oct. 20 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Students must book appointments at least a day in advance. She said flu shots are also offered daily, by appointment only at the Student Health Center in Nordenberg Hall.

Vanek added that all enrolled students are eligible — and encouraged — to receive a free flu vaccine.

“Be good to yourself and your community,” Vanek said. “Get a flu vaccine.”

Because of COVID-19 safety precautions and to ensure appropriate social distancing, Vanek said all flu shot appointments must be scheduled either online via Student Health’s Patient Portal or by calling 412-383-1800. All necessary paperwork is to be completed online and must be finished by 9 a.m. the day of the appointment.

Goundappa Balasubramani, a research associate professor in epidemiology, said getting a flu shot is especially important this year. He said the combination of COVID-19 and the flu could be dangerous to the already overburdened health care system. 

“This year, if a COVID-19 surge overlaps with a flu surge the medical system may be stretched beyond its resources to care for the sick,” Balasubramani said. “Though the influenza vaccine will not prevent COVID-19, it will help lower the risk of getting sick and needing influenza-related medical care and prevent hospitalization.”

Balasubramani also said that while the flu and COVID-19 share similar symptoms such as coughing, fever and shortness of breath, COVID-19 is more lethal. However, both can be deadly.

Tini said in light of the coronavirus pandemic, he thinks it is important that Pitt and other locations offer free and accessible flu shots.

“I think it is very good how accessible the flu shot is today. Many places offer it for either free or for a very low fee,” Tini said. “It enables people who would usually be unable to afford it to get preventative treatment if needed.”

This isn’t the first year Pitt has conducted a flu vaccine campaign. Vanek said at the Healthy U Fair, Student Health Services would typically administer 1,400 to 1,600 vaccines, and last year it set a record of 1,700 vaccines. She said Student Health would also typically host “traveling flu clinics” across campus and had drop-in hours at the Student Health Center. Altogether, Vanek said Pitt typically administers 7,000 to 8,000 doses per year.

Balasubramani said this year, these measures are even more necessary with the potential for co-infection, or contracting COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. Less than half of college students are typically vaccinated, according to a survey from the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases.

“In general, every influenza season millions of people are affected with influenza disease in the U.S. and several thousand people die of this disease every year,” Balasubramani said. “With the new SARS-CoV-2 virus an estimated 6.5 million people were infected and more than 200,000 deaths have occurred in the U.S. so far. The consequences of co-infection may be more than one would expect.”

Balasubramani also said that populations at a higher risk of serious flu complications, such as those with asthma, diabetes, chronic lung conditions, obesity and metabolic syndrome, should get vaccinated “immediately.”

The University has had 251 students and 30 employees test positive for COVID-19 since June 26, with 209 students and 29 employees recovered thus far. Pitt added 13 new cases, composed of 12 students and one employee, between Friday and Monday.

Balasubramani said he is hopeful that if people follow all COVID-19 mitigation steps, like social distancing and mask wearing, there will actually be a decrease in flu cases this year.

“There is hope this year that due to the COVID-19 measures like mask compliance, social distancing and hand hygiene in place for this pandemic, the flu will not spread as much,” Balasubramani said.

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