WASHINGTON – State officials Monday laid out a plan for “aggressively” combating the upcoming influenza season as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, with the first step being to urge people to get a flu shot as soon as possible.
The state plans to increase funding for Medicaid recipients to get flu shots, combine flu-shot sites with coronavirus testing facilities, and more, while also advocating many of the same measures meant to head off the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Doug Ducey, who announced the plan with health department director Dr. Cara Christ, said state officials have always taken flu season seriously, but that “the overlap with COVID-19 this year presents greater challenges than the typical flu season.”
He warned that a bad flu season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic presents “a perfect storm” of potential health problems.
Officials warned that flu seasons in years past have inundated hospitals, similar to the peak of the COVID-19 cases the state saw this summer, but that flu vaccines remain a surefire way to keep those hospitalizations low.
“With this upcoming flu season, and with COVID-19 still circulating in our communities, there’s a potential that our health care system could become overwhelmed,” Christ said Monday.
Last year, she said, the state saw more than 36,000 flu cases. She said the same recommendations health officials make for COVID-19 – washing your hands, wearing a mask, physical distancing, and staying home when you feel sick – apply for those looking to prevent the spread of the seasonal flu. The difference is there is a vaccine for the flu that state residents can get right away.
Toward that end, the state will increase reimbursement under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System – AHCCCS, the state’s Medicaid program – to providers who offer flu shots to Medicaid recipients. It will also allow some pharmacists to administer the vaccine, and will expand the availability of flu shots to various COVID testing sites around the state by late September, Ducey said.
While the state was laying out its plans to battle the flu, Christ also pointed Monday to advances in the fight against COVID-19.
She said nine of the state’s 15 counties have met the threshold for some businesses to start reopening on a limited basis, and that more than 1,200 businesses have applied to do so. Those businesses must certify that they have a plan in place to safely reopen and agree to abide by state-mandated standards, including reduced occupancy, wearing masks unless eating or drinking, and enforcing physical distancing of at least 6 feet.
Businesses that don’t live by the rules will be shut down, she said, pointing to three bars in Maricopa County that were shut down over the weekend as a result of law enforcement investigations and a health department tip line for reporting violators. Actions against bars that violate reopening standards could include the revocation of their liquor licenses, she said.
Christ also said her department continues to work closely with the Department of Education, on a roadmap for reopening in-person schooling throughout the state. Currently, Apache, Greenlee, La Paz and Yavapai County have met the benchmarks to let students return to the classroom full time, and Christ said department data indicate additional counties should follow in the coming weeks.
Christ also announced a partnership with Hanes, the clothing manufacturer, that will let students get up to five facemasks for themselves and their families through the health department.
Steve Purves, president and CEO of Valleywise Health, said at the press conference that the best way for people to protect frontline COVID-19 health workers is to get a flu shot to prevent another disease outbreak. Doing so means abiding by the “tried and true procedures” people have grown accustomed in recent months, he said.
“We’re all in this together,” Purves said. “And I thank Gov. Ducey and Dr. Christ for their teams of experts, for being such great partners here, and in helping us to keep Arizona going in the right direction.”