Clallam, Jefferson push to see populations get flu vaccinations

PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson and Clallam counties have struggled in recent years to get their populations vaccinated against the flu, an effort underscored by the North Olympic Peninsula being hit hard this flu season. 

Neither county has a way of collecting data on how many people are getting flu shots every year, but Jefferson Healthcare hospital is looking to provide more accurate data, according to Lisa McKenzie, the communicable disease program coordinator for Jefferson County Public Health.

“The flu shot for adults and pneumonia for the population 65 and older are two things we’re focused on,” McKenzie said.

In Jefferson County, flu shots were listed as one of the priorities on the Community Health Improvement Plan adopted in 2015.

In Clallam County, flu shots haven’t been pushed by the health department but are consistently pushed each season by local clinics, according to Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Christopher Frank.

“We put out notices every year and the clinics work hard at it,” Frank said. “It’s not really pushed by the health department, but we know clinics and providers have the ear of their patients.”

The flu vaccine, when used widely, can decrease the risk of the flu by between 50 percent and 60 percent, according to McKenzie.

“When something can decrease the risk for more than half of your population, that’s a really good tool to have in your tool box,” McKenzie said.

Peninsula health officials say this flu season is the worst outbreak in recent memory, with hospitals and clinics reporting spikes in influenza cases across the area.

But outside of flu season, both counties struggle with low vaccination rates for children.

“It doesn’t directly relate to flu outbreaks, but it puts us at risk for other things like whooping cough,” McKenzie said.

In a 2014 study from the state Health Department, Jefferson County ranked 30th out of 38 counties in the state for the percent of kindergartners starting school with completed vaccinations.

The same study found that 12 percent of Jefferson County kindergartners are listed as exempt from vaccinations for medical, personal or religious reasons. That’s compared to only 5 percent statewide.

In 2014, only 22 percent of Jefferson County sixth-graders had completed all immunizations, compared to 82 percent statewide.

Frank said that flu vaccination statistics weren’t immediately available for Clallam, but described the rates as below state averages as well.

“Vaccinations are a huge part of our community improvement plan,” McKenzie said. “We have a lot of families with an alternative view of vaccines and choose not to have their kids vaccinated but also a lot of families who struggle to keep their vaccines up to date.”

Clallam County does tend to see a higher overall vaccination rate — especially in the wake of a measles outbreak in 2015, according to Frank. But Port Angeles and the West End of Clallam County tend to have higher vaccination rates than Sequim.

“The data still isn’t great on how to keep track of vaccines of flu shots,” Frank said. “We can go back and look at payments, but that usually takes a year so the data isn’t up to date.”

According to McKenzie, Jefferson County’s low vaccination rate is worrisome, especially during Clallam’s measles outbreak.

“We knew we had pockets of kids who could get infected,” McKenzie said. “I think in the next set of data we’re going to see some positive changes. I know the clinics have been working hard and the schools have also been working hard to move us in the right direction.”

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at [email protected].

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