Mayor Thomas Menino and Boston health officials are asking residents of all ages to get flu vaccinations this weekend, during a series of free clinics set up to battle what Menino declared as a “public health emergency.”
During a press conference held Wednesday afternoon at Parkman House on Beacon Hill, Menino urged residents to protect themselves against “an increasingly tough flu season” by getting vaccinated.
“We are less than halfway through the flu season, but Boston has already seen about 700 confirmed cases of the flu since Oct. 1. That’s 10 times the amount of total cases we saw all of last year,” Menino said. “Today, we are announcing that this weekend in partnership with our community health centers, we will be offering free flu shots across our city in a coordinated effort with the Public Health Commission.”
Residents can call the Mayor’s Health Line at 617-534-5050 with questions about the flu or to find out where to get vaccinated. All Boston residents who are six months of age or older are eligible to receive free flu shots this weekend. Officials said they are not concerned about running out of the vaccine.
Information about flu clinics is also available on the BPHC website.
Menino said he had already had his flu shot, and he encouraged workers across the city to get theirs and to stay home if sick.
“We all have to take care of each other and work together. The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family is to get the flu shot,” Menino said.
Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the public health emergency was declared because there is “some urgency to the issue.”
Ferrer said the city has already had four deaths related to the flu—all people over age 65, one of the demographics that is most at risk. Others who are more likely to develop serious problems because of the flu are children ages 5 and under, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease and kidney problems.
“This [public health emergency] allows us to both mobilize resources across the entire city and also get the word out that this is an unusually difficult flu season for us,” Ferrer said. “We have not seen this much flu since 2009, and we’re very early in the season to be seeing this much flu.”
This season, health officials are mostly seeing a Type A, H3 strain of influenza, according to Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Infectious Disease Bureau.
“That probably is part of the explanation as to why we are having such a severe flu season,” Barry said. “Typically, the Type A, H3 viruses are associated with more severe illness, with influenza season that starts earlier and that may go on a little bit longer and involve more people.”
Current vaccines have proved to protect against that particular strain of influenza, she said.
Barry encouraged residents to contact their health care providers if they show signs of more severe symptoms and said most cases do not require a trip to the emergency room.
“Most people are able to treat influenza at home by taking medications to reduce fever, resting and drinking a lot of fluids,” Barry said.
Those who fall within one of the at-risk groups should contact a physician if they show symptoms of the flu. In addition, Barry advised anyone whose flu symptoms appear to diminish but then come back to call a doctor.
“People with influenza, which is a viral infection, are also prone to get secondary bacterial infections,” she said.
Other signs people should call their health care providers: They are unable to keep down fluids, have difficulty breathing or appear to be confused.
Harder hit neighborhoods
Ferrer said some areas of Boston have been hit harder than others this flu season—in particular the neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan.
She said the reasons for this were complex but that it was in part related to a larger population of “lower wage workers” who may be less likely to have health insurance and thus fewer health care connections. These residents also may have less time off from work, which means not only can they not rest and get better but they also are more likely to spread the virus while away from home.
“I don’t think it’s surprising for us that some communities end up being harder hit than others,” Ferrer said.
Walter J. Ramos, president and CEO of Dorchester House Multi-Service Center, also spoke at the press conference, annoucing that his agency would be offering free flu shots on Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.
"It's free. It's open to everyone," he said. "It's not too late to get your flu shot."
Ferrer said there are still between six and eight weeks left in the flu season.
When asked who should get a vaccine, Ferrer emphatically responded: “Everyone.”
“We’d like thousands of people to get vaccinated this weekend,” she said.