How 7 colleges plan to fight flu this season with COVID lurking

From mandates to clinics to outreach, strategies vary as institutions try to stave off a potential 'twindemic'
By: | October 13, 2021
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Fearing the potential deluge of COVID-19 and flu cases in the same season, colleges and universities have been proactive in pressing students and staff to be vaccinated against both viruses.

Higher education leaders and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say getting influenza doses into the arms of campus populations is as imperative as taking steps to try to mitigate transmission of coronavirus. Since symptoms often mirror one another and additional testing may be required to ensure students and faculty don’t have COVID when feeling ill, pressure is mounting to protect communities healthy and operate near normal.

To that end, University of California President Michael Drake, who has an extensive background in medicine, announced through executive order that his system would be requiring flu vaccines for the fall.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing, and the potential confluence with influenza viruses remains a threat to the health and safety of the UC community and the public at large,” Drake wrote. “As President of the University, I have concluded that critical steps must be taken to reduce the likelihood of severe disease among students, faculty and staff, particularly those on campus, and in turn to reduce the likelihood that our health systems will be overwhelmed. The University views vaccination against influenza as an important part of actions needed for the safe return to in-person activities as well as for protecting the public health of the surrounding communities.”

Students, staff and faculty will need to submit proof of flu vaccine doses by Nov. 19—just before the Thanksgiving break, a strategy being employed this year and done in past years at many other institutions to avoid spread during travel and the holidays.

But unlike its COVID-19 vaccine requirement, UC is not mandating that its populations get them. Instead, it is allowing for individuals to opt-out if they want to (no exemptions required) as long as they submit a form to their respective universities. But here’s the catch, according to new UC guidance: “Anyone who chooses to opt-out may do so, as outlined in the executive order, but will be required to wear masks or face coverings at UC locations through the end of the flu season even if COVID-19 requirements are loosened (or be subject to testing).”

At the University of Notre Dame, which is mandating flu vaccines this season, there is no opportunity for students to opt-out unless they are approved for a medical or religious exemption. Students can get their vaccines free of charge on Oct. 25 or 27 through university clinics, but they must do so by Nov. 1. For those who don’t, “The University will place a registration hold on the student’s account, which will prevent the student from registering for classes (Nov. 15).”

How institutions are responding

Last year, more than 80% of colleges and universities had some flu vaccine policy in place. The CDC notes the importance of getting vaccinated, including that there were 400,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths during the 2019-20 flu season alone.

“Unlike many other viral respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold, the flu can cause severe illness and life-threatening complications in many people—even young healthy adults. Getting vaccinated against the flu every year is the best way to protect yourself from seasonal flu,” the CDC’s guidance says.

Under Drake’s executive order, UC will be taking a number of steps to ensure that its populations are vaccinated, including:

  • Providing educational information to all potential recipients on the influenza vaccine—its benefits and risks along with the consequences of acquiring the flu—as well as forms where individuals can opt-out.
  • Offering information on locations of on-site vaccination clinics, as well as alternative locations offsite that include providers, medical offices, and pharmacies.
  • Cover all costs for covered individuals and their families to receive the flu vaccine, free of copays.
  • Each university campus shall “strongly encourage” their populations to get vaccinated through marketing, promotions or campus fairs.

Many institutions have already gotten a jumpstart by offering free flu vaccine clinics on campus or offsite.

Ithaca College in New York held its annual Point of Dispensing event on Tuesday for students. Penn State University’s Health Services held the first of its FightFluPSU clinics on Sept. 30 and has another one planned for Oct. 25. And Stillman College in Alabama has worked with a number of partners, including a local pharmacy, to administer doses to students.

Georgetown University had plans for flu vaccine clinics interrupted by a rate influenza outbreak in early September but still managed to host a number of them throughout the month for students.

Flu season typically begins this time of year and runs through May, according to the CDC, but it peaks during the winter months. Although its flu vaccine requirement doesn’t fall until Jan. 20, 2022, Wesleyan University in Connecticut is banking that traditional models showing the highest peaks of cases in February will hold true this academic year.

The University of Miami doesn’t require COVID-19 vaccinations for students but it is requiring the flu vaccine this fall.

For colleges looking for guidance or campaign materials to promote flu vaccines, the CDC offers a number of resources to institutions, including toolkits, infographics, social media messages and videos.