People living in 15 underserved U.S. communities will be able to get flu shots for free thanks to a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services and Walgreens to provide around 350,000 doses of influenza vaccine.
The demonstration project, started with a $10 million donation from Walgreens, will launch next week by distributing vouchers in eight U.S. markets -- Atlanta, Bronx, N.Y., Chicago, Houston, Kansas City, Mo., Newark, N.J., Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia, Kermit Crawford, president of pharmacy services at Walgreens, announced on a conference call with reporters.
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After that, the joint effort will be broadened to include seven more areas -- Fort Lauderdale, Miami-Dade County, and Palm Beach in Florida, Seattle, Waco, Tex., the District of Columbia, and various parts of New Hampshire.
The vouchers can be exchanged for one free flu shot at any Walgreens pharmacy, Duane Reade Pharmacy in New York, or Take Care Clinic.
The project is specifically aimed at increasing flu vaccination rates in black and Hispanic communities, which traditionally have worse coverage than white communities.
About one-third of Americans have been vaccinated against influenza this season, and many of those who have not been immunized come from minority communities, according to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Blacks and Hispanics are particularly at risk for flu-related complications because of elevated rates of diabetes and heart disease in those populations. The joint effort by HHS and Walgreens, the nation's largest drugstore chain, is aimed at reducing racial disparities in flu vaccine coverage.
Vouchers will be distributed through a variety of community outreach efforts by local public health officials and their community partners in the 15 targeted cities in conjunction with HHS Regional Health Administrators, according to a Walgreens press release.
The joint effort to increase flu vaccine coverage will encompass patient and community education, mail and phone reminders, outreach to businesses, schools, and senior and family service centers, as well as radio public service announcements.
"We need everyone and every community to recognize that vaccines are the cornerstone of prevention," Sebelius said.
She noted that plenty of vaccine is available this season, and that many people are eligible for free vaccine through the Vaccines for Children program, Medicare, and Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act also includes provisions for free preventive care -- including vaccination.
According to Dr. Dan Jernigan, deputy director of the CDC's influenza division, the weeks before the holidays are a good time to get vaccinated.
He said that flu activity is increasing and is expected to peak in late January or February, as happens in most years. Last year -- when flu activity picked up in August and peaked in November -- was an anomaly caused by the H1N1 pandemic.
Jernigan added that the influenza strains covered by this year's trivalent vaccine -- A/H3N2, B, and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic strains -- are a good match for the strains that are currently circulating -- about equal amounts A and B strains. None of the viruses tested so far has shown antiviral resistance.