The waiting room at Catch Up Clinic is sparse, save for a little girl in a pink sleeveless shirt darting out the door, a tan Band-Aid barely visible on her upper left arm. Located just around the corner from the Alameda County Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program at Eastmont Town Center, Catch Up is one of several County Public Health Department clinics preparing for the arrival of the autumn’s biggest contagion challenge—the flu.
With the beginning of influenza season quickly approaching, advertisements promoting vaccination sites at clinics and pharmacies are proliferating. But Catch Up is especially appealing to lower income and uninsured patients throughout Oakland, because this clinic’s flu shots are free.
For those without health insurance, for whom the cost of a flu shot at a pharmacy or hospital is enough to dissuade them from receiving the shot at all, the Alameda County Public Health Department has started a website list of clinics offering free or donation-based flu vaccinations. In Oakland, such locations include the Family Justice Center on 27th street and St. Bernard’s Parish on 62nd Avenue, among others. The department also maintains a continuing list of county clinics that provide free vaccinations for other contagious diseases, like tuberculosis.
“There are a lot of people in our community who are living in the shadows, and that’s the immigrant community,” said Andrea Arce—nurse manager of public health nursing for the County Health Department—in the waiting room at Catch Up Clinic. “It’s incredibly important to provide these services.”
Each fall, healthcare plan providers tend to promote “incredible advertising” for flu vaccine to those with insurance, said Sherri Willis, spokesperson for the County Health Department, in a telephone interview. However, as soon as flu season begins, the department often starts receiving calls from lower-income patients seeking to vaccinate before stock runs low.
“Elderly people start calling immediately, as soon as the vaccine has been shipped,” Willis said. “They’re more acclimated to getting the shot—they actually show up without much prodding. Some elderly people are on very tight budgets, so every dollar counts.”
Even healthy people are encouraged to vaccinate against flu, as the virus can be easily transmitted to others with more serious underlying chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes and lung disease. In fact, this year, the CDC recommends that anyone over the age of 6 months take precautionary measures against flu by vaccinating—hence the growing numbers of free clinics and pharmacies that administer flu shots each year.
Persons living with or caring for someone at high risk of developing complications related to flu, in addition to healthcare workers, pregnant women and anyone over 65, are especially advised to vaccinate. About 90 percent of deaths from flu occur in patients over the age of 65, according to the CDC website.
According to Willis, the state Department of Public Health allocates doses of flu vaccine to local health jurisdictions based on what each district received and used the previous year. Last year, the Alameda County Public Health Department received almost 20,000 doses. Because the current flu season is just beginning, the department has only received a small amount of vaccine so far.
“Generally, we don’t get more [doses] than what we got the previous year, because the state of California doesn’t have a lot of money,” Willis said.
Unlike some medical services, vaccinating against flu is as easy as walking into a local clinic or the nearest Walgreens.
Clinics that secure their vaccine supply from the Alameda County health department—Catch Up Clinic and the Prescott Joseph Center on Peralta Street are two such examples—are required by the state to make them available to patients at no cost, Willis said.
“Community clinics may do a sliding scale—sometimes they like to cover their administrative costs,” she said. “If you can pay $2 dollars or nothing at all, they can’t turn you away.”
Any organization—be it clinic or pharmacy—that receives its shipment directly from the manufacturer is free to charge its own price and determine payment options. Walgreens spokesman Jim Cohn said the chain administered 5.6 million flu shots across the country last year. This year, prices are set at $31.99 per shot, he said, but they are covered by most insurance plans. The cost of co-pays depends on each patient’s individual plan.
Walgreens, Safeway and CVS pharmacies also allow seniors to pay for their flu vaccines through Medicare Part B non-HMO insurance, which allots one flu shot per season in addition to covering most medical supplies, doctor’s visits, and outpatient and home healthcare. The vaccination is free under Part B coverage if the entity giving the flu shot—whether it’s a drugstore or a doctor’s office—agrees to bill only the amount agreed to by Medicare.
At the Walgreens on 51st Street and Telegraph, flu vaccines began in early August, said Hazel C., a pharmacist who preferred her last name not be used. Vaccinations are still offered for $31.99 to customers without insurance, she said, but some people say they can’t or won’t pay that much, and go to clinics instead. September is one of the Oakland location’s busiest vaccination months. “Yesterday, we vaccinated 11 people or more,” she said.
This year’s flu vaccine protects against three strains: an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus and an influenza B virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website. Although flu season usually peaks in January or February, it can start as early as October. It takes about two weeks post-vaccination to develop protection against flu. Anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the population nationwide develops flu each season.
Yes, it’s still possible to be inoculated and still catch the flu. “If you do get sick, it’s most likely because you’ve been subjected to another virus,” Carol Sherburne, an RN at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center’s Flu Clinic, said in a telephone interview. But that’s no reason to dispense with the vaccination altogether, she said. “If you have been vaccinated, you’re more likely not to get that particular strain of flu,” Sherburne said.
At Catch Up Clinic, demand for flu vaccine has not been high so far, according to Arce.
That’s because other free or low-cost clinics, like the Fruitvale’s La Clínica de La Raza and Native American Health Center, are also successfully educating lower-income and uninsured patients about their vaccination options, she said. The bulk of Catch Up Clinic’s vaccine shipment is expected to arrive within the first or second week of October.
“It’s really a team effort,” Arce said. “Even the advertisements at Walgreens and CVS help to promote the message and act as positive reinforcement to get vaccinated.”Clarification: An earlier version of this story left off part of the full name of Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center.