The USC School of Pharmacy and the City of Los Angeles have partnered to offer free flu vaccines at coronavirus testing sites. The move is an effort to practice a coronavirus vaccine rollout plan, increase health care accessibility for all L.A. residents and avoid a flu season exacerbated by both influenza and the coronavirus.
As of Sept. 22, free flu vaccines have been offered at mobile coronavirus test sites where residents are less likely to have cars or health insurance and will continue to be staffed each Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, through part of December, according to Dr. Richard Dang, an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy. Dang, who is the chair of the COVID-19 Task Force for the California Pharmacists Association, also oversees the free flu vaccination initiative. He said that he expects about 100 participants per day.
“We know that it’s going to be an important vaccination to have because the upcoming months that we’re experiencing from September to March is what is typically known as our influenza season,” Dang said. “As the cases of COVID-19 could potentially continue to rise, we’re faced with what some people are calling a twindemic — having the epidemic of COVID-19 as well as influenza.”
While Dang said that influenza vaccines are even more crucial this year because of the pandemic, the idea for the free flu vaccines originated from discussions between the School of Pharmacy and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office about L.A.’s preparations for the eventual coronavirus vaccine. They decided to administer free flu vaccines at coronavirus test sites in order to practice the operational rollout of coronavirus vaccines. Dang said that the pilot clinics are a “win-win because everyone needs to get a flu shot this upcoming season.”
Dr. Irving Steinberg, an associate professor of clinical pharmacy and pediatrics who is also the associate dean for faculty affairs at the School of Pharmacy, said that people can have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, making it more important than ever to vaccinate and continue to practice social distancing, masking and hand-washing measures.
“The other benefit in having an influenza vaccine is that it diminishes … the confusion between what a patient may be suffering in terms of influenza symptoms and what a patient may be suffering in terms of COVID-19 symptoms,” Steinberg said. “If you cover one with an available vaccine, now if you’re going to be suffering shortness of breath and fever and aches and pains, maybe you can be more assured that that’s not influenza because you vaccinated effectively. And that’s important because the treatment strategies are of course vastly different.”
In the past, the School of Pharmacy has offered free flu shots at health fairs in neighboring communities; however, this is the first time the school has collaborated with the city to provide vaccinations. The School of Pharmacy provides expertise and on-site medical volunteers, while L.A. Fire and Community Organized Relief Efforts assist with day-to-day logistics, safety and location of the clinics and non-medical volunteers. L.A. County provides additional expertise and doses of influenza as well, Dang said.
“We’re hoping that these relationships will continue to thrive in the future because even after this year, after the COVID crisis and after the COVID pandemic, there’s going to be a continued need to receive annual influenza vaccines and other health screenings,” Dang said. “So, definitely looking forward to the future now that we have these strong relationships with these important partners.”
Whitney Fakolade, a graduate student studying pharmacy, has been involved with planning the clinics, administering vaccines and educating patients on the importance of a flu vaccine.
“As pharmacists, we see that it’s important for our community to know that we are accessible to them, to make sure that we can protect them and provide information for health, because most people having a primary care provider may not be a practical thing,” Fakolade said.
In L.A., coronavirus testing is offered at mobile sites as well as static locations with drive-up testing in places such as Dodger Stadium. Free flu shots are currently only available at the mobile sites, but Dang said there are plans to eventually expand to static testing locations as well. Once vaccine clinics have been expanded to static testing locations, Dang said that he hopes to conclude which model would be the most effective for administering COVID-19 vaccines.
For now, his team focuses on mobile clinics, which include tent and table set-ups at parking lots and parks to increase accessibility for people who may not have access to cars, according to Dang. Through the mobile clinics, the team can target particular areas where people with barriers to health care typically congregate. One example he brought up was a mobile clinic at the YMCA East L.A., where neighborhood residents were already picking up daily free meals and could get a free flu shot at the same time.
Dang said that the majority of the people treated so far have not had health insurance and belong to underrepresented populations who are typically from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. He added that the team “saw a pretty significant number of immigrant populations who may have been undocumented or maybe were in the process of getting documentation.”
“The nice thing about working with a mobile unit is that they’re really choosing locations based on the needs of the community,” Dang said. “We have a really big focus on looking at health equity, and it became very evident when COVID testing first came out that there are certain populations that just don’t have access; that don’t have the ability to drive to some of these large testing locations. Even for those populations, they either don’t have health insurance or they don’t have access to reliable health care with a primary care clinic.”
In order to further the goals of accessibility, Fakolade said that pharmacists have implemented screening and registration tools in different languages, as many patients do not speak English. Most of the advertising has come from word-of-mouth and social media, she said.
“It’s very interesting because we have a set of patients that spoke Mandarin, and we had a student who was pretty good at Mandarin and the student asked them ‘Oh, how did you hear about us?’” Fakolade said. “And they were saying how they were reading that we were providing these services off of a Chinese blog that they subscribed to.”
Due to the nature of the mobile units, most of the dates are tentative up until a week before the clinics, Dang said, so people who want flu shots will be able to visit coronavirus.lacity.org/flushot for the most up-to-date information on where the clinics will be stationed each week.