Getting the flu shot this year is going to look different in Illinois as patients and medical facilities adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some Chicago area doctors and pharmacies are offering drive-thru flu shots for kids and adults, to help with social distancing. And some companies that normally offer vaccines in the office are giving vouchers to employees working from home that they can redeem at pharmacies.
Meanwhile, children as young as 3 years old can now receive flu shots from pharmacists, a controversial change made by the federal government last month to help as many as possible get vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The changes come as experts stress the importance of getting the flu shot this year, both to keep people healthy during the pandemic and to preserve health care resources in case COVID-19 surges again during the winter.
“It really is important this year, this year more than any other year, to make sure we all get our flu vaccines,” said Dr. Allison Bartlett, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Chicago Medicine. “It’s also going to be a little challenging as we navigate how and where we can get our flu vaccines.”
In years past, many working adults waited in line for flu shots at their offices, and some companies still plan to offer them.
But traditional flu shot clinics are no longer practical for all workplaces because of social distancing requirements and because employees are working from home. Instead, some companies are offering vaccines to employees in their parking lots, and others, including in the Chicago area, are giving employees vouchers, said Alan Kohll, founder and president of Nebraska-based TotalWellness, a national corporate wellness company.
Some companies provided vouchers before the pandemic, but many more are doing so now because so many workers have traded their cubicles for kitchen counters, Kohll said.
“They want to keep their employees healthy,” Kohll said of the companies offering vouchers. “Just like when you’re on-site you want to keep your employees healthy and productive, they’re not going to differentiate just because they’re at home.”
Drive-thru vaccinations are also attracting many patients in the Chicago area, including those who are wary of walking into doctors offices and pharmacies because of COVID-19.
On Thursday, a steady stream of cars pulled into a corner of the parking lot of the Highland Park Jewel-Osco for drive-thru and walk-up shots. Pharmacy manager Valentina Danilovski and other workers took turns handing forms to patients in their cars before pulling grocery store carts full of vaccination supplies up to their vehicles.
They asked patients to roll down their windows or open their doors and stick out their arms. They reached gloved hands into the grocery carts for alcohol wipes to sterilize patients' skin. They then pulled vaccines out of insulated bags and administered the shots. The process took just a few minutes.
“I don’t go inside anywhere, so this outside, is really great,” said Brad Soren, 61, of Highland Park, who got the shot from his SUV.
University of Chicago Medicine has also been holding drive-thru flu shot clinics once a week on it’s Hyde Park campus for current patients who are ages 9 and older, Bartlett said. Advocate Aurora Health is offering more than a dozen drive-thru clinics in the Chicago area as well as three for children in Wilmette, Park Ridge and the South Side of Chicago.
Some pediatric practices are also offering drive-thru clinics, rather than the mass, walk-in immunization clinics they often held in their offices on weekends, in years past.
PediaTrust, which has 20 pediatric offices throughout the north, northwest and west suburbs, has already vaccinated more than 2,600 children in drive-thru clinics.
“Babies can get the vaccines while staying in their car seats,” said Dr. Susan Sirota, a pediatrician at PediaTrust’s Vernon Hills and Highland Park locations. Children who might need extra attention, including those who have a fear of shots, can get out of their cars with a parent to get the vaccine on a chair outside, she said.
Parent Colleen Torf recently took her 12 and 9-year-old sons to a drive-thru vaccine clinic at Kids First Pediatric Partners in Skokie. She said her kids were calm throughout the experience and enjoyed not having to wait in the pediatrician’s office for a shot.
“I was at a stoplight longer than it took to get the flu shot,” Torf said. It was so easy that she hopes her pediatrician continues to offer drive-thru shots in the future, even if COVID-19 is no longer a concern.
But not all pediatric practices are offering drive-thru clinics. Lurie Children’s Hospital has discussed doing drive-thrus with its affiliate practices, but not all have enough doses of the vaccine or workers to carry them out yet, said Dr. Ravi Jhaveri, associate head of Lurie’s division of pediatric infectious diseases. PediaTrust has also had to reschedule a few drive-thru events because it didn’t have enough supply of the vaccine due to shipping delays.
Lurie is trying other tactics to get the vaccine to as many kids as possible, such as offering the nasal spray flu vaccine, which is “easier to give and quicker,” Jhaveri said. Also, Lurie is, for the first time, giving the vaccine to children who visit the emergency department, when medically appropriate.
Many pediatric practices that aren’t offering drive-thru clinics are requiring parents to make appointments for their kids to get the flu shot, to ensure not too many people fill their offices at the same time.
It can be challenging, however, for large practices to schedule appointments for as many as thousands of patients at once.
That’s led to longer waits for the shot at some pediatric offices. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children receive their flu shots by Halloween.
“Those logistical challenges are a real issue,” Jhaveri said. “Even if it takes a little longer, I would encourage people not to give up. This is important for protecting family neighbors, friends.”
He also noted that if parents are having trouble getting their kids flu shot appointments at their pediatricians' offices, they can try going to pharmacies or other types of clinics offering the vaccine.
Before this year, Illinois pharmacists could only give vaccines to kids 10 and older. But the federal government changed that this year, superseding state law, to allow pharmacists to give vaccines to children as young as 3 in hopes of improving access to immunizations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some Illinois pharmacies, such as Jewel-Osco, have gone ahead and started vaccinating children as young as 3, while others are sticking to a minimum age of 10.
The American Academy of Pediatrics opposed the change to the age requirement, calling it “misguided" and saying that children should get vaccines from their pediatricians who know their medical histories and can provide well-checkups at the same time, in a safe environment.
Some pharmacies, however, say the change will make it easier for families to get flu shots together — something that could be especially helpful this year given that many kids are learning remotely and many parents are working from home.
On Thursday, Ira and Cara Schlussel brought their 22-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son to the Highland Park Jewel-Osco for drive-thru flu shots. One-by-one, each member of the family rolled down a window or opened an SUV door, to allow Danilovski to give the shots.
“It was quick, efficient, and we didn’t have to go inside,” said Ira Schlussel. “With the pandemic, it’s safer to be outside."
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