In 2014, health insurance plans will have to include, among many other preventive health benefits, a flu shot free of charge. This year, many people still have to pay for the shot, which they can get from their doctor, pharmacy, clinic or health department.
Free flu shot events are held each year, including a recent one at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health.
"The virus changes every year, and lots of people much smarter than me work every year to develop the vaccine for the coming year, and it's only good for that year," said Donna Petersen, the dean of USF's College of Public Health. "So it's very important that people get a flu shot every year. And this isn't simply about avoiding a few days of inconvenience. The flu actually can kill people, and does kill thousands of people every year, the majority of whom are older folks."
Florida health officials don't keep track of statewide flu-related deaths. Records kept by the Centers for Disease Control estimate about 23,000 people nationwide die each year, on average, from complications related to the flu. The flu pandemic back in 1918, also known as the Spanish flu, killed as many as 50 million people worldwide.
Florida does monitor flu activity from week-to-week during flu season, and posts that information here. Some counties have already seen it pop up.
Of the 1,500 doses of the flu vaccine available at USF's event, 1,325 were administered. The Department of Health in Hillsborough County spent $14,757 to provide the doses. Steve Huard, public information officer, said it's important to have events like this even if people have other ways to get a flu shot.
"Traditionally, seasonal influenza vaccination rates are low, somewhere in the 40 percentile range," Huard said. "In many cases, it's a matter of people don't want to pay for it, it's a matter of access to the shot, availability. If you have to do anything out of the ordinary, people just won't bother to get it."
According to the CDC, the vaccine reduces the odds of a healthy adult getting the flu by 70 to 90 percent. Its effectiveness is lower for older adults, who are also at greater risk of dying from it.
Nursing students, many of them in their second semester, administered the shots at USF's event. They had plenty of supervision, said Connie Visovsky, the associate dean for student affairs and community engagement at the College of Nursing. "It's a great event and students really look forward to it, they love it."