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Seasonal Vaccinations Remain Important During Pandemic

"Syringe and Vaccine" by Flickr User NIAID / (CC X 2.0)

While the world waits for a COVID-19 vaccine, doctors are encouraging residents to catch up on their other immunizations. 

Lisa Gonzalez is Public Health Administrator for the DeKalb County Health Department. She said with the current pandemic, it’s just as important to protect yourself against other respiratory diseases, such as influenza.

“We believe that it’s likely that the flu virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading at the same time.”

Physicians are also recommending that tetanus and whooping cough vaccinations be kept current through a combination vaccine. Dr. Tony Leazzo, Chairman of Family Practice at Delnor Hospital, explained.

“In the fall time, when we’re starting to get into the cold and flu [season], people like to go out and work garden, brush up their landscaping, and if you’ve got open cuts and things like that, you can actually leave yourself more susceptible to tetanus at that point.” 

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is endemic to the area, and Leazzo said vaccines are key to preventing infection. Another respiratory disease that can be addressed with vaccines is pneumonia. But unlike the flu shot, a pneumonia vaccine is usually given to patients 65 and older. Leazzo said young, healthy people aren’t as vulnerable to complications.

“But as we get older, because our immune systems naturally weaken, over 65 even without comorbidities, you can really leave yourself open for susceptibilities.” 

These “comorbidities” can include diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which could make getting pneumonia more dangerous. Doctors may recommend the vaccine to younger patients if they have these conditions already.

And then there’s the vaccine for Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted infection. Leazzo said it’s recommended for teenagers.

“HPV is the number one cause of cervical cancer in our country, so the more we can get the young women immunized, it would give them much more protection. And where actually the latest studies are showing throat cancers in men, so getting our young men immunized as well, it’s a huge issue.” 

To help younger residents get their vaccines, Gonzalez said the DeKalb County Health Department participates in the Vaccines for Children program, with help from the Centers for Disease Control and the State.

“So we’re able to offer very low cost vaccines for children who may be underinsured or uninsured or on Medicaid.”

Gonzalez said this serves as a safety net for those types of vaccinations. But differing insurance coverage makes it more difficult to offer the same aid to adults.

“So we are still able to provide those vaccines, but oftentimes, we are billing those through insurance.” 

Besides addressing those without means, the COVID-19 pandemic has created its own set of challenges. Gonzalez said there’s been a downturn in the county’s child immunization program.

“Oftentimes right before school starts, we have a large influx of patients coming in to get those kindergarten vaccines and this year, that looked a lot different.”

Gonzalez also noted that her department has helped neighboring health departments, some of whom temporarily shut down their vaccination programs to commit more resources to fighting coronavirus.

“When we began to open up further at the very beginning of July to do more immunizations, some of the health departments that are smaller to the west of us, some of the residents of those counties might come to us to get those vaccine services because maybe their county health department, at that time anyway, wasn’t able to provide them.”

And then there’s the simple fear of getting infected with COVID-19. Leazzo said doctors’ offices have implemented stricter sanitation procedures such as multiple patient screenings and limiting patient proximity in the building to assuage those fears. Nevertheless, he said ensuring patients are vaccinated is key.  

“I know that we’ve had a battle with some gaps in care just because people are naturally afraid to go out and then when we talk about oh, going to a doctor’s office where everybody could be sick, it does start to leave those gaps.” 

When a COVID-19 vaccine is finally developed, Leazzo and Gonzalez said a key priority will be ensuring it is safe. It will most likely first be distributed to those most at risk for coronavirus complications before it becomes available to the wider public. Until then, both recommended that you ensure your other vaccines are up to date. If not, they suggested getting in touch with your doctor or local health department.