"The opportunity came from the state from through the division of Maternal and Child Health [of the Georgia Department of Community Health]," said Bartow County Health Department Nurse Manager Cathy Green. "We were offered the opportunity to offer the flu vaccine to the children in the schools with the stipulation that we would have to go out and give the vaccine at the schools.
"Part of this is to see how effective this is, to see if we can, one, help reduce the absenteeism rate at the schools by immunizing the children against influenza, but also if we can make a bigger difference in just overall reducing influenza in the community," Green added.
The vaccines were given to students in Bartow County and Cartersville City schools, as well as Excel Christian Academy, at no cost, no matter if they were insured or uninsured or their income level -- as long as their parents gave school and health officials permission to administer the pharmaceuticals. Participating students either received a flu shot, which contained the killed virus, or FluMist, the live attenuated influenza vaccine. County health officials began visiting the schools to administer the vaccines Nov. 3.
Green said this is the first time at least in the last decade her department has visited the schools to offer the flu vaccine. School officials said they believe the program also is a first for them -- and a welcome addition.
"In all, I think this is going to be a good way to get all the students that maybe would not have gone and gotten a flu shot or the nasal spray if it had just been done at the civic center, per se, like they had last year, or at a different location," said Kathy Anderson, director of Special Programs for Cartersville City Schools. The district had 1,674 students receive permission to be vaccinated.
"We see it as a win-win situation, because students are getting a needed vaccine to stay well, and it helps us because it will keep the child in school," Anderson added. "If a child gets the flu, they're out of school from seven to 10 days. That's a lot of instructional time that a student misses, and it's hard for them to catch back up when they get back to school. So we want to make sure that they're well and that they're coming to school, and we also want to make sure that our staff members are well and are coming to school in order to provide that instruction."
Annette Lively, lead nurse for Bartow County Schools, said keeping students in class was one reason why her system wanted to take the health department up on its offer to provide the vaccines. In the district's 20 schools, 5,368 vaccines were slated to be given.
"What we're hoping is to see a decrease in absenteeism related to flu-like illness," Lively said. "If we can prevent the flu in the student body, then hopefully they won't be absent as often or as much or as long.
"Last year, we had kids who were radically out for three to five days at a time. They miss a lot of teaching when they're out that long, so we're hoping that this is going to help," she added.
The department also immunized an estimated 220 students at Excel Christian Academy.
Green said her department estimates that 40 percent of students in the county received vaccinations through the free offering.
"I would've liked to see it a little higher," she said. "For the first year, and for such a quick turnaround on the opportunity to do it, because we just found just a little before October [that we could do this], and then we had to wait for the vaccine to arrive ... I'm not totally disappointed by the turnout."
But Green said she hopes parents who did not take advantage of the program will seek immunization options for the children through other means, such as private providers like grocery stores or pharmacies.
"Flu still kills approximately 36,000 people a year in the U.S." Green said. "For a yearly average like that, even when you think you're having a light year of flu, when you think about 36,000 people dying annually from flu, it certainly gives us cause to immunize."