Local community members drive up to the Imperial County Public Health Department’s free drive-through flu vaccination clinic at the Imperial Valley Fairgrounds early Saturday morning, Nov. 21. | CELESTE ALVAREZ PHOTO
IMPERIAL — With the flu season in full swing, community members arrived extra early to the Imperial Valley Fairgrounds hoping to miss potentially long lines during the free drive-through flu vaccination clinic early Saturday morning, Nov. 21.
“We started at 7 a.m., so we had some people lined up pretty early this morning,” Public Health Information Officer Maria Peinado said during the event. “It’s been pretty steady all morning and slowed down a few minutes ago, but we are here until 10 a.m., so we want to make sure people have access to the flu shot.”
The free drive-through clinic, which was aimed for individuals 6 months and older, was the last such event hosted by the county’s Public Health Department this flu season. The clinic event was originally scheduled for Nov. 7, however, due to high winds that day it was postponed for two weeks.
“We wanted to make it accessible to people, that’s why we made it more of a drive-through because of the pandemic and because the department is closed at this point, and we are not having walk-ins for the flu shot,” Peinado said.
Community members wore face coverings as they drove into the I.V. Fairgrounds where they were first screened for possible COVID-related symptoms and had their temperature checked before proceeding to one of the seven available flu vaccination lanes.
People stayed in their cars for the entire process, which took less than 15 minutes from the time they answered a few questions to when they received their free flu vaccine. Those receiving the shot for the first time were required to temporarily park in an observation area to make sure they didn’t have any adverse reactions to the vaccine, Peinado explained.
“We planned two drive-through flu clinics this year, so we had one on Oct. 31,” Peinado said. “This is the last one we are having this year, and we are not charging because, again, we want to give people access to it.”
During the first clinic, county officials administered more than 1,300 doses of the vaccine. More than an hour after the start of the second clinic, officials had already provided hundreds of flu vaccinations to the community, Peinado explained.
“Right now, the latest count we had was a little bit over 400,” Peinado said just before 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning.
Public Health officials were joined by members of their partner organizations to assist with the clinic’s various sections, including vaccinating, traffic control, and screening. Individuals from Imperial County Behavioral Health and Imperial Valley College assisted during the clinic along with dozens of volunteers, Peinado said.
“It’s Public Health hosting it, but we have collaboration from a lot of our partner agencies,” Peinado said. “We could not do this without them, because this is definitely a team effort and we are very grateful for that.”
Although the drive-through nature of the clinic is especially convenient when it comes to maintaining social-distancing guidelines required by the ongoing pandemic, Peinado also noted that the clinic serves as an additional exercise for the county.
“We use it as a mass vaccination exercise in case we ever need to mass vaccinate our community,” Peinado said. “We will already know kind of how we need to do the layout, how many staff members we’ll need, how many vaccinators we are going to need, and how many people we are going to put through.”
Even though Public Health has held drive-through clinic exercises in previous years, the exercise remains particularly important for the county as they expect such services will be crucial once a possible COVID-19 vaccine is made available.
“We know that come next year, we are probably going to have to do mass vaccinations for the COVID-19 vaccine when it does become available, so this helps us plan for that,” Peinado said.
As COVID cases continue to surge at an alarming rate for the second time throughout the country, a concern remains that local hospitals and healthcare providers will be even more overwhelmed as the normal influenza season begins to ramp up.
“People can get very ill from the flu and we don’t want them to have to be going to the hospital because we are trying to use those resources for the people that have COVID,” Collett Ashurst, a five-year nurse and case manager for the county’s foster care youths, said.
Ashurst was among a team of nurses who were posted at each of the seven drive-through lanes available at the clinic. She helped administer the flu vaccine as she had done during the previous clinic on Oct. 31.
“October’s was much busier than it is today, but it was nice to be able to be with the community and provide the immunizations,” Ashurst said.
She also hopes more individuals will take the time to protect themselves from the flu given that the flu virus and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms.
“It’s important to get your flu shot because a lot of the symptoms are the same as COVID, so we are trying to protect against the flu while we work for the vaccine for COVID,” Ashurst said.
Both COVID-19 and the flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptom, which is asymptomatic, to severe symptoms, but most commonly include fever with chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue or tiredness, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain, body aches and headaches, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Major differences between the two viruses can be found in their severity. The flu can cause mild to severe illness involving those common symptoms, whereas COVID-19 seems to cause more serious illnesses in some people. Additionally, other symptoms specific to COVID-19 can include change in or the loss of taste or smell, according to the CDC.
If we can protect people from the flu or make their symptoms as minimal as possible where they’re able to stay home, that frees up our healthcare community to be able to care for people with COVID,” Ashurst said.
A misconception that Ashurst often hears associated with the flu shot is that it will completely prevent someone from catching the illness, but in fact it serves as a form of protection, she explained.
“Your immune system is built up so your flu is not as intense,” Ashurst said. “After you get your flu shot, it is normal to feel achy, to have soreness at the sight and to feel kind of gross. That’s not you being sick, but it’s your immune system boosting up.”
Ashurst recommends those that experience such symptoms following their flu shot take Motrin or Tylenol for the pain as it should only last a couple of days. Besides the drive-through clinic, the flu vaccine is also available and administered at community clinics, healthcare providers, and local pharmacies.
“There is still places where people can go to get the flu shot if they were not able to come to one of the drive-through flu clinics with the Public Health Department,” Peinado said, hoping more people take the time to get the flu vaccine this season as it takes about two weeks before becoming effective.