Between organizing stacks of books at her job, Nikki Johnson also serves after-school snacks and dishes out career counseling.
This month, she adds immunizations to her lengthy to-do list.
Johnson, who manages the Martindale-Brightwood Branch of the Indianapolis Public Library, said it has “served as a sanctuary for many of our community members. We like to let our patrons know that this library actually belongs to them and that this community is one.”
Health experts are encouraging Hoosiers to head to facilities like the library branch to get vaccinated against influenza. It’s a statewide effort to help protect people from the contagious respiratory illness that sickens thousands of Hoosiers each year and claimed more than 130 lives last flu season.
What’s more, health officials say poverty can be a barrier to equal health care. That’s why the Indiana Region of the American Red Cross is partnering with the Indiana Immunization Coalition to offer free flu shots at PACE Indy and the library branch on the city’s northeast side.
Health experts say flu vaccinations are especially important now, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise. They want to avoid overtaxing the region’s hospitals and other health providers.
“From October first to the 11th Indiana-wide, there were 135 deaths from COVID-19,” says Dr. Amy Beth Kressel, medical director of infection prevention with Eskenazi Health. “Last influenza season, 130 people died in that entire season from influenza. So, that just tells you the seriousness of what’s going on.”
Flu season typically runs from October through May. To be as effective as possible, some 70% of Americans needs to get flu shots, the Marion County Public Health Department estimates.
But Black Hoosier families fall far short of that goal.
Dr. Virginia Caine, director and chief medical officer of the Marion County Public Health Department, got her flu shot already. She wants more Black Hoosiers to follow suit.
“If you don’t care about yourself, care about your loved one,” she says.
Caine said racial disparities in vaccinations are common. The Red Cross reports 40% of Black Indiana adults were vaccinated during the 2018-19 flu season, compared with 49% of white adults.
And across the Midwest, fewer than 40% of Black adults say they’re likely to get a seasonal flu shot.
“It is a tragedy and it is a problem, but I’m optimistic,” said Chad Priest, Indiana regional CEO of the American Red Cross. “We know vaccination is a heavy topic in these communities from hundreds of years of oppression. I think maybe I’m just a hopeless optimist that dialogue creates a space for understanding.”
Priest wants more people to understand that COVID-19 and influenza are both contagious respiratory illnesses spread primarily by droplets released when infected people cough, sneeze, talk, laugh or sing. And some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar.
Caine worries the flu could overwhelm the health care system.
“We may not have enough beds and ventilators to take care of everybody and then we’ve got to start rationing,” she says.
Getting a flu shot is important to avoid such a “twindemic,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box, who this month tested positive for coronavirus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone age 6 months and older get a flu vaccine each year. Because infants under 6 months can’t be vaccinated, it’s important everyone in that household get a flu shot, Box said.
Health care workers also are urged to get a flu vaccine to reduce their risk of transmitting illness to patients.
“[The CDC] wants everybody vaccinated because they‘re really worried about the two viruses playing together and they really want to nip influenza as much as possible early,” Kessel said.
At Eskenazi Health in downtown Indianapolis, Kessel said precautions are already in place as COVID-19 cases increase. Pulmonary specialists are now being redirected to help critical care physicians.
“We are certainly feeling it,” she said. “It’s been a busy year for us, and I’m not as hopeful as I was in the summer.”
She said social distancing and wearing masks work to keep coronavirus infections down. For the flu, she said, a shot is the best defense.
For Johnson, the availability of the flu shot is no different than any other service the library branch has hosted since its founding in 1901.
“We are the liaison,” Johnson said. “What I‘m excited about is being able to give people access to what it is they need or want that they may not otherwise have.”
This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder.
To find the nearest location to get a flu shot, visit vaccinefinder.org.