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Harvard University Health Services Falls Short of Flu Vaccination Goal

Harvard University Health Services is housed in the Smith Campus Center.
Harvard University Health Services is housed in the Smith Campus Center. By Shera S. Avi-Yonah
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard University Health Services fell short of a goal it set last year to increase the undergraduate flu vaccination rate by 20 percent, according to HUHS Senior Director of Nursing and Health Promotion Maria Francesconi.

The total number of Harvard affiliates who got flu shots from HUHS increased from 13,227 in 2018 to 13,783 in 2019. The total number of vaccinated undergraduates increased from 2,391 to 2,762, according to data provided by Francesconi.

Francesconi said that, while HUHS did not ultimately meet their 20 percent goal, her team was pleased to come close.

The initiative was a part of this year’s iteration of the HUHS flu vaccine campaign. In a September interview, Francesconi said roughly half of Harvard College students are vaccinated against the flu every year.

“[We’ve] held steady for about the last five years where we're getting about half the undergraduates,” she said in September. “The Harvard community itself had a slightly higher rate of influenza-like illness last year than what we saw in the rest of the country.”

HUHS employed several strategies to boost vaccination rates this year with the help of undergraduate HealthPALs, Francesconi said. Her team provided stuffed animals to calm nervous patients ahead of receiving their shot and communicated with administrative offices — including the Dean of Students Office — to promote the clinics over email and social media.

“We had Dean [of the College Rakesh] Khurana come and get a flu shot at one of our clinics so we could, you know, encourage students to do it,” she said.

HUHS also targeted the Harvard Athletics Department by holding vaccination clinics specifically aimed at student-athletes.

“We did an extra clinic at the MAC this year,” Francesconi said. “We also changed our hours at the field house to try to reach more athletes.”

HUHS also delayed the clinics this year in response to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-led research that showed vaccines given later in the year cover people for longer.

“Certainly for some of the older folks — some of the employees — it certainly could make a difference if you give them a flu shot in August,” HUHS Infection Control Surveillance Officer Donna Campbell said in a September interview. “It’s pretty well worn off by April.”

Francesconi said she hopes the increased number of vaccinated Harvard affiliates will reduce the number of influenza-like cases at HUHS this year.

"We’re hoping to see a decreased number of that across the community,” she said. “The vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, but we do know that if people get the vaccine, they tend to have less severity in their illness.”

She added that HUHS will continue to offer flu shots in January, but that she encourages Harvard affiliates to get vaccinated at home while on break.

“Our worst flu season tends to come right around February—when you guys are coming back for the spring semester—for many reasons,” Francesconi said. “But February [and] March tend to be our worst time of year for illness.”

— Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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