Healthy Choices

With the death toll rising, hundreds flock to Sacramento-area flu shot clinics

By the hundreds, the capital region’s residents flocked to free flu shot clinics this week, voluntarily submitting themselves to the sting of vaccines offered by health care entities confronting a particularly deadly flu season.

Sacramento County officials, meanwhile, increased the official flu fatality count Wednesday from 21 to 24. Thirteen of the dead were women and 11 were men.

Though the identities of the deceased are not revealed by public officials, many of those getting their flu shots this week said they were moved by the death last month of Nancy Pinnella, a News10 ad executive whose family urged the community to get immunized. Pinnella, of East Sacramento, was healthy before she died at age 47 four days after leaving work early, feeling sick.

Others said they’d had enough prodding by their mothers to finally get the flu shot.

Whatever their reasons, all had been summoned to the free clinics through some extraordinary marketing efforts by Sacramento and Yolo County health systems responding to the severity of the season through the use of robo-calls, social media, the news media and even dangling the possibility of an appearance by a sports celebrity.

UC Davis Health System, a network of providers linked to the UC Davis School of Medicine, for the first time used a computer program to telephone patients who, according to their electronic health records, had not yet gotten a flu shot.

“We haven’t done this kind of outreach before,” said Dr. Jasmine Karalakulasingam, an internal medicine and pediatric physician. “This is new for us. But we will continue the practice. We want to get our immunization rates up to our goal, 50 percent of the population.”

Current vaccination rates run from 30 to 35 percent of the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s considered low by public health policy standards. Some people are unaware that a new vaccine is needed every year, and others who consider themselves fit, healthy and young, don’t think they need a flu shot. Still others find themselves swayed by faulty arguments on the Internet that the shot itself can be harmful.

State epidemiologists have said about 20 percent of those who’ve died in California had the flu shot, which does not provide a 100 percent guarantee against influenza, but is 60 to 80 percent effective.

This week may have turned the tide of reluctance among young and working-age adults, who showed up in robust numbers at the clinics. Word had spread that the H1N1 virus strikes working-age people who are otherwise healthy particularly hard, possibly because they’ve not built up immunity with annual vaccines. Sacramento’s official death count of 24 only includes people who were under the age of 64. Just two people over the age of 65 – an age group generally considered more vulnerable to the flu – have died in the county this year.

“We’ve definitely had a lot of people coming in being scared about how bad this flu season has been,” Karalakulasingam said.

On Tuesday, 1,260 people, many of them non-Kaiser members, lined up outside the health network’s Point West Medical Offices near Cal Expo. Initially, Kaiser Permanente expected to see about 400 people, but the health system got three times that, in part by making use of its partnership with the Sacramento Kings and scheduling an appearance by Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas.

Despite the huge crowd, the line at Kaiser moved swiftly and smoothly, save for a few crimson-faced tots whose torrents of tears failed to block the flu shot.

John Kennedy, 48, of Antelope moved over to the queue to see Thomas after getting his first-ever flu shot, prompted by his parents. “I never get sick. I used to think I was invincible,” said Kennedy, who works at the Office of State Publishing. “But now I see people getting sick and dropping dead and I’m not so sure.”

Ellen Chamberlin, 39, said she, too, succumbed to her parents’ wishes. “My mom has been bugging me,” Chamberlin said. “Then I heard about that news lady who passed away. I kind of thought it was time. How many people are going to die before more people get vaccinated?”

Standing in front of Chamberlin was Alicia Dienst, 45, a substitute teacher and social worker. “My mom, who is a retired high school teacher, kept saying, ‘Go get a flu shot,’ ” Dienst said, noting that she, too, was motivated by the Pinnella family’s call for everyone to get vaccinated so Nancy Pinnella did not die in vain. The family had said people should learn from the death of their loved one, who had tragically decided she was too healthy to need a flu shot.

On Wednesday night, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., the Yolo County Health Department held another free flu clinic at West Sacramento’s City Hall. Officials had expected a few hundred people to show up.

Today, the Sacramento County Department of Public Health and Human Services will hold a free flu vaccination clinic for those not yet immunized against the virus. The clinic will be at 7000 65th St. in Sacramento from noon until 3 p.m. A spokesperson for the health department said there will be 600 vaccines available.

A notice on News10’s website said the county was staging the clinic to promote awareness of the importance of the flu vaccine and to help News10 honor Pinnella, who served the station as a national sales account manager.

Editor's Note: This article has been changed from the print version to clarify Isaiah Thomas' availability to the public at the Kaiser flu clinic. Amended on Feb. 6, 2014.

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