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Alaska public health centers offer free flu vaccinations

State public health centers are encouraging everyone to get a flu vaccine this fall.

State public health centers are encouraging everyone to get a flu vaccine this fall. (KCAW photo/Rachel Waldholz)

The state of Alaska is offering free flu vaccinations for anyone whose insurance doesn’t cover it.  The decision is part of a statewide effort to encourage more people to go get vaccinated.

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Penny Lehmann is a nurse at Sitka’s Public Health Center, and right now, she has a needle in her hand.

PL: And this is the vaccine you’ll be getting today. Just sit back and relax this arm…

Like many people in relatively good health, I don’t normally get a flu shot – and that’s despite the series of text messages each fall from my dad, reminding me to get vaccinated. But this year, Alaska announced that it would offer flu vaccinations for free to anyone whose health insurance doesn’t cover it.  So I figured, why not?

This fall, the state is hoping that a lot more people will make that calculation.

Greg Wilkinson is a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Social Services.

“We want to make sure that as many people as possible can get the flu vaccine,” Wilkinson said. “So if that $28 administration fee is standing between them and a flu vaccine, we’re happy to waive it.”

Alaska has always provided the actual vaccine itself for free to those who qualify, but in the past there was a $28 administration fee. The state is now waiving that fee. That means that if your health insurance doesn’t cover the full cost of a vaccination, you can get a free one at any state public health center.

“If you don’t have health insurance, if your health insurance   doesn’t cover vaccines, if you’ve not met your deductible or copay for vaccines, or if you don’t even know if your health insurance covers vaccines, then come on in,” Wilkinson said. “We’ll use the state supplied vaccine and get a flu shot for free.”

Children under the age of three can also receive the vaccine for free, whether they have health insurance or not.

The state decided to encourage more people to get vaccinated after a patient in Anchorage died of what doctors initially suspected was influenza, though later testing actually ruled out the flu. But the scare made health officials extra cautious — even though, so far, there have been fewer confirmed cases of the flu this year than last, according to Wilkinson.

For most healthy adults, the flu usually means a lousy week and maybe a couple days in bed. But children, pregnant women, and older adults are more vulnerable. And infants under six months can’t be vaccinated. Sitka’s Penny Lehmann says that’s why she encourages everyone to get vaccinated.

“We want to make sure that anybody who is in contact with an infants are immunized,” Lehmann said. “It’s very very important, it’s called cocooning. So it’s good for them to be protected, but it’s good as a community health or public health responsibility for everyone to be immunized, because then you’re protecting those who can’t be.”

Public health centers even offer a choice between a flu shot, and a nasal spray. I was feeling tough, so I chose the shot.

LH: Just hold your muscle…and you are done!

RW: That didn’t even hurt. 

LH: Good. We practice every day. 

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