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Free flu shots take aim at seasonal health threat

ST. LOUIS – Free flu vaccine clinics are coming to the rescue of hundreds of people this year who would otherwise go without the safety measure.

Influenza strikes every year, and every year a vaccine is formulated according to the best available information about what exact strain or strains will hit. Health experts advise everyone ages six months and older to get vaccinated against the virus, which can be deadly.

Getting the shot is a snap for people with health insurance; but for those who must pay out of pocket for the vaccine, it can be low on their to-do list. The ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has ripped many people from their jobs, their access to health care and their ability to juggle one more task, no matter how important.

On Saturday, Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the St. Louis Blues hosted a free flu shot clinic at the Enterprise Center. The event was open to anyone who came by between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., with no appointment – and no insurance – needed.

People line up outside the Enterprise Center on Saturday to get free flu shots. The walk-up event was sponsored by BJC HealthCare and the St. Louis Blues.
On a chilly fall morning, people had started lining up outside by 8 o’clock. They spaced themselves safely six feet apart, pulling jackets tight against a sharp east wind. A woman wrapped in a shawl sat in line in a portable chair.

A man who may have benefited from such a chair hobbled over to lean on a sign informing participants that they would have their temperatures taken before being allowed to proceed and that they must wear masks. The man wore no mask, and complained about being held outside to wait; but he did pull out and put on a disposable mask when the doors opened – early, about 8:40 a.m. By that time, nearly a hundred people were in line.

Among them were two women from Collinsville, Ill., who declined to give their names but said that they had health insurance and could have gone to their doctors or to pharmacies that will bill insurance companies at no cost to the patient. But the friends had come to the Enterprise Center because “we come over here all the time. It’s just over the bridge.”

With a limited number of vaccines available at this or any such event, those people may have deprived others of those doses. But at least they were aware of the need to fight influenza.

A separate lane for families with children under age 12 gave quick entry for little ones and their big people.

Health care workers and volunteers scramble to provide free flu shots at the Enterprise Center on Saturday.
Inside, dozens of workers and volunteers checked temperatures, asked health evaluation questions, handed out forms and directed traffic. Individual, numbered tables were set up with a nurse staffing each. Students from the St. Louis College of Pharmacy stood in their crisp, new white coats, relaying information by walkie-talkie as to which tables were vacant and ready for the next person.

As well-staffed and organized as the event seemed to be, that initial surge of participants caught the workers a little by surprise.

“What are we supposed to do with the clipboards … No, that other table … I need a pen … Where did those forms go?”

And some vaccine seekers were a bit less enthusiastic than others.

A woman who had brought both her young daughter and her own mother was saying, “Mom …” The woman turned to the nurse, explaining, “She doesn’t want to do it.” But the older woman steeled herself and got the shot. She did herself and her family a favor.

A nurse prepares to give a free flu shot at the Enterprise Center.
Several groups have been offering free clinics, at various locations and times and with different procedures.  The city of St. Louis’ website has a running list of such clinics at stlouis-mo.gov

“Some clinics are by appointment only, while others are first-come, first-serve,” the site notes.

There’s an interactive map to help people pick a location best for them and check for updated information before heading out to get the vaccine. Appointments tend to fill up quickly.

Also, the city warns, “The following locations, dates, and times are subject to change as more clinics are scheduled. This page will be updated regularly as additional information is received by the Department of Health.”

June Heath


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