In September 2020, 10,000 randomly selected Veterans received an invite via telephone to participate in a tele-townhall designed to inform South Texas Veterans about influenza, risks and the precautions provided by the South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS).
This level of outreach is intended to alleviate any anxieties Veterans have about additional impacts the flu has in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pandemic or not, Dr. Jose Cadena-Zuluaga, chief of Infectious Diseases at STVHCS, says the flu vaccine has two purposes. “It’s important to get the vaccine because it can prevent the disease. If they get sick, it can also make it milder and protect them from complications and hospital admissions.”
The latter benefit is critical during this time because throughout many metropolitan areas, bed space is an important component in handling any surge of COVID or influenza cases.
Army Veteran Luis Ramirez, who transferred his care from Puerto Rico to San Antonio four years ago, said he gets his vaccinations like clockwork.
“Since I was in the Army for 20 years, I was just used to getting them. It was just easy to do when I started getting seen at VA.”
Throughout the presentation, the audience was presented poll questions. The first queried the VA services available. When asked if Veterans were aware that VA provides all qualifying Veterans the flu vaccine, 80% polled responded yes.
Another polling question asked Veterans if they knew the South Texas VA offered the flu vaccine at eight drive-thru locations across the city.
One Veteran who already knew about the drive-thru clinics was Marine Corps Veteran Candor Tovar, who drove up with his daughter. He has been with STVHCS since it opened in 1974. He gets his flu shot because he took his doctor’s advice: “I get my shot every year because my doctor recommends it. Even if I still contract the flu, it will be much less severe.”
Tovar went through the line quickly. The drive-thru clinics opened for this season were meant to make the process convenient for patients. Only 10% of Veterans realized this service was offered.
Another function of the town hall was to increase the public’s knowledge of influenza.
Cadena-Zuluaga asked the participants, “Does the flu vaccine increase the risk of contracting COVID?” He answered: “There is no evidence of this. The flu vaccine will not increase the chances of contracting COVID.”
Cadena-Zuluaga closed out the session by reiterating the importance of the high-risk group getting vaccinated. That group includes young children, patients with a high body mass index, nursing home residents, immunocompromised, diabetics and the elderly.
This high-risk group makes up a majority of South Texas patients. For this reason, STVHCS continues to offer vaccinations across the city at all its clinics.
Steven Goetsch is the public affairs specialist for the South Texas VA.