Healthy Living

Psst!! Want a Free Flu Shot?

Getting your annual influenza (flu) shot is important in normal times. But with the possibility, however remote, of contracting both the flu and the coronavirus – what some experts have called a “perfect storm” – public health officials are more adamant than ever that people schedule a vaccination.

That’s why the prospect of paying nothing for your flu shot this year is a beautiful thing.

Flu shots are fully covered by some insurance carriers, as well as Medicare. And there are other options available. According to the website GoodRx, the average out-of-pocket cost of a flu shot is about $35, and $60 for the dose for seniors.

The flu vaccine will help protect you and your family from getting the virus. It will also help doctors rule out other viruses in suspected COVID-19 cases. In addition, keeping severe flu cases out of the hospital frees up valuable hospital beds and resources in the case of another COVID-19 surge like that at the start of the pandemic last spring.

Medicare and Medicaid 

For people on Medicare -- assuming a doctor or health provider accepts Medicare -- the flu shot is free. 

For families who use Medicaid, under the federal Vaccines For Children (VFC) program, vaccinations for kids should be free. Most healthcare practitioners are enrolled as VFC providers, but it is worth checking.

For adults, Medicaid will likely cover some, if not all, of the cost of the flu shot. Some patients may need to pay a small amount, depending on their state's guidelines. 

For Veterans 

For veterans enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration system, the flu shot is free at VA medical centers and some participating retail locations and urgent care centers. Check ahead of time to see what is available.

College Students 

Although many students are living at home this year while they attend online classes, for those still on campus, a free flu vaccine might be as close as the university's health services building. 

Policies will vary across the nation. Some schools, like the University of Central Florida, are offering the flu vaccine to students for free. More schools offer the vaccine at a nominal cost to students who have no insurance. At the University of Texas at Austin, a vaccine is $10.

Here are some tips for students on campus:

  1. Check if you need an appointment. Many universities do, because of social distancing. 
  2. Check the school’s website, but plan to bring some combination of insurance card, school ID card and photo ID.
  3. Plan to wear a mask. 

Pennsylvania State University’s main campus, located in State College, provides a mix of free vaccines and vaccines for $25. Valerie Fulton, RN, the infectious disease nurse manager at Penn State, explained that an on-campus organization has paid for the first 4,536 students. After that, students can expect to pay $25, although it might be zero with insurance. Ms. Fulton said that this year Penn State doubled the number of vaccine clinics, from six to 12, and expects to vaccinate 11,000 students.

“We worry about concurrent spread,” she said, referring to the possibility of getting both the flu and COVID-19. She encouraged students to get the flu vaccine and to “take care of yourself.”

“It always goes back to the basics,” she said, suggesting students get enough sleep, eat well, drink plenty of water, and reach out to campus services like mental health if they need it. 

For off-campus students, the policy varies by school, so people should call ahead. For instance, West Virginia University is offering drive-through clinics for students, faculty, staff, their dependent family members and retirees.  

Cities and Counties 

Some cities offer free or reduced-cost vaccines. People interested in this option should contact their local health department or call the local information line. 

Employers 

Many employers – most often those in health care – will offer or even require staff in the workplace to be vaccinated against the flu. Insurance will cover the cost for people teleworking from home who have insurance through their company. Those without insurance should consider either paying out-of-pocket, looking for a low- or no-cost option in their area, or taking advantage of a matching program at a family member’s workplace. 

The Skeptics 

Scientists prepare the flu vaccine before the flu has begun to actively spread. The flu is actually a big family of viruses that can combine in different ways, year to year. Think of the flu as a cookie: There are chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin and the ones with M&Ms in them. But they could also be mixed together into chocolate oat cookies, or raisin and M&M cookies. The flu always has some basic similarities, year to year, but scientists and researchers work to predict what mix it will be.

This year, the vaccines are protecting up to four types of flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A senior dose is stronger to increase the immune response, which grows lower with age. Some shots also have an adjuvant, an additive that makes them more effective. Before getting vaccinated, people should talk to their provider about any concerns or allergies they have. With few exceptions, there is a safe flu shot for everyone. 

Guesswork?  

Because the vaccine is made in advance, it isn’t always perfect. The CDC keeps records of how effective it is each year. Most years, the effectiveness is between 20%, often for seniors, up to as high as 60%. Remember, no flu shot is zero protection, so even 20% is better odds. 

The Takeaway

This year, getting a flu shot is a great protective step. The flu vaccine prevents influenza, which can be deadly, but also limits the strain on hospitals and can make it easier for doctors to diagnose cases of COVID-19. There is a good chance many people can locate a free option, or at least a low-cost option, in their area. Getting a flu shot will probably require an appointment and a mask. But it provides significant protection against a nasty virus, and the satisfaction of helping family and community. 

Sabrina Emms is a science journalist. She got her start as an intern at a health and science podcast out of Philadelphia public radio. Before that she worked as a researcher, looking at the way bones are formed. When out of the lab and away from her computer, she's moonlighted as a pig vet's assistant and a bagel baker.

 

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