With COVID Still Climbing, State Launches Blitz to Encourage Flu Vaccine

Veronica Valentine McNally knows first-hand what it’s like to lose a loved one to a disease in a death that could have been prevented.

McNally’s infant daughter, Francesca Marie, died in 2012 as a result of the highly contagious respiratory disease pertussis – whooping cough – just a few days after showing symptoms.

“We were having her Baptized as they were taking her from us,” McNally said. “We never saw it coming.”

Shortly after Francesca’s death, McNally and her husband, Sean, founded the IVaccinate program, a public education campaign to help Michiganders “get the answers to their questions about vaccines.”

McNally recounted the story at Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus press briefing Tuesday afternoon, where McNally represented the Franny Strong Foundation, the foundation dedicated to her daughter – and to getting answers and information out about vaccines and their effectiveness.

It came during Whitmer’s press conference, which focused more on the upcoming flu season than it did on the COVID-19 pandemic. Sure, COVID-19 was a big topic – Michigan has had more than 98,000 cases and more than 6,400 deaths – but Whitmer talked more about a new flu campaign – Facing the Flu Together – launched by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

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Facing the Flu Together is a statewide media campaign encouraging Michiganders to get their flu vaccine this fall and help prevent an outbreak of a second communicable disease that – with COVID-19 still very much a concern – could put the state’s economy and health care system at greater risk, Whitmer said.

Whitmer stressed the importance of getting the flu vaccine.

“Preventing the flu will help us save lives and preserve the health care resources we need to continue fighting COVID-19,” she said. “Every flu-related hospitalization we see this season will put an additional strain on Michigan’s economy and our health care systems and hospitals. Our hospitals are still reeling from the spring COVID-19 hospitalizations and are working to prepare for a potential second wave of the virus. I encourage everyone to get their flu vaccine, and tell your friends and family to do the same.”

During the 2019-2020 flu season, the nation recorded 39 to 56 million estimated cases of the flu, 18 to 26 million medical visits due to the flu and nearly half a million flu hospitalizations.

Despite its comparison to the common cold, the flu is a very serious and potentially deadly disease, especially for children, older people and people with chronic health conditions. Last season, 187 children died from the flu in the United States, including six children in Michigan.

“There is a lot of misinformation about the flu and the flu vaccine, but the science is clear: the flu can be deadly, and there are steps that we can take to protect against it,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, MDHHS chief deputy for health and chief medical executive. “That’s why as a parent and a doctor, I make sure myself and my children are protected each year with a flu vaccine for their safety, and for my patients, friends and community.”

Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health & Hospitals Association, said the state saw some 952 flu-related hospitalizations in Michigan during the 2019/20 flu season, including six pediatric deaths.

He said that same scenario can be prevented “if we take the right actions today” and voiced concerns about a surge in both the flu and in COVID-19 cases happening simultaneously.

“Our association has been in constant daily contact with the amazing men and women who work in hospitals and health systems, and it’s from that unique perspective I can tell you we are very concerned about the potential for a COVID surge at the same time as a flu surge here in Michigan later this year,” Peters said. “In that scenario, many of our hospitals could potentially fill to capacity. That’s a scenario we have seen earlier this year … it’s something that we have the opportunity to avoid by taking strong action now.”

Last flu season, an estimated 3.2 million people in Michigan received a flu vaccine as documented in the Michigan Care Improvement Registry (MCIR). The state has set a goal of achieving a 33% increase in flu vaccination this season, which means more than 1 million people over last flu season.

The vaccine is already available in some parts of Michigan, Whitmer said, with an “ample supply” expected across the state and nation starting in early fall.

“This year, there is significant concern over COVID-19 and influenza epidemics happening together,” McNally said. “If you’ve never received a flu vaccine before, now is the time to start.” As the flu vaccine becomes available, Whitmer urged Michiganders to contact their local health departments, physicians and pharmacies to schedule a time to get the flu shot, and to seek out credible sources like IVaccinate.org for answers to vaccine questions. For more information about the flu, visit Michigan.gov/Flu.