Around Campus

Flu shot four-peat

Strong community participation helped Carolina defend its national title in a university flu vaccination competition.

A man recieves a flu shot.
Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz rolled up his sleeve on Friday, Oct. 1, to get a flu shot from Jenna Pauli, a nurse from University Employee Occupational Health Clinic. (Lucy Dunderdale Cate/UNC-Chapel Hill)

For the fourth year running, Carolina won its category in a friendly competition between schools to encourage increased flu vaccination rates on college campuses.

The Alana Yaksich College & University Flu Vaccination Challenge ran from September to December 2021, with schools earning a point each time campus community members reported that they received a flu vaccine. During the 2021 competition, 21 schools participated from 11 states while battling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Carolina reported nearly 8,000 flu vaccinations, ranking No. 1 among medium-sized universities. With around 3,400 vaccinations, Wayne State University placed second among medium-sized universities. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, won the large-university category with around 18,000 vaccinations.

What accounts for the University’s winning streak?

“Our Tar Heels really care about each other,” said Amy Sauls, Campus Health’s director of pharmacy and professional services. “They know that when they get vaccinated, it’s not only to offer themselves the best protection that they can have against the flu, but it’s also to help keep their community safe. That’s really reflected in our vaccine numbers.”

Tar Heels are also fiercely competitive.

The flu, a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses, can cause mild to severe illness. During the 2019-20 flu season, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described as “moderate,” an estimated 38 million people were sick with flu, requiring 400,000 hospitalizations and resulting in 22,000 flu deaths.

Sauls said one of the best ways to protect yourself against flu is to get vaccinated, as well as to follow protocols such as handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes. “The flu vaccine is not 100% effective, but it is the best tool we have in our toolbox.”

Side effects from the vaccine, she said, are minimal. “You’ll probably have a sore arm, maybe for about a day afterwards. Some people may feel just a little under the weather, but the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. It’s not a live virus vaccine.”

Flu vaccination rates remain flat in the United States, with less than half of the population getting vaccinated each season against influenza. Alana’s Foundation, created in 2009 in memory of Alana Yaksich, a 5-year-old who died of influenza in 2003, hopes to change that through awareness campaigns and competitions like the College & University Flu Vaccination Challenge.

Sauls said it’s especially important to get a flu shot during the COVID-19 pandemic. “You certainly would not want to get flu on top of COVID. But if you get the flu and you’ve been vaccinated, the likelihood is that your symptoms would not be nearly as severe as if you had not gotten vaccinated,” she said. “Getting both vaccines is the best protection we can offer.”

And it’s not too late to get your shot for the current flu season.

“We usually offer flu shots until the beginning of April because flu outbreaks can happen as late as March,” Sauls said. Vaccines can also protect those traveling to foreign countries, where flu seasons can differ. The exact timing and duration of flu seasons varies, but in the United States, influenza activity often begins to increase in October and peaks between December and February, although significant activity can last as late as May, according to the CDC.

A vaccination received this semester won’t count toward another national title, but it will help protect you. And you’ll have another chance to support Carolina in the 2022 national championship.

Sauls, for one, wants to see the winning streak continue. “It’s a traveling trophy, so we’re glad we haven’t had to ship it off in the last four years. Mainly, we’re glad that our students, faculty and staff are getting vaccinated.”

Where are flu shots available?

Student Stores Pharmacy (located on the third floor of the UNC Student Stores building) and Campus Health Pharmacy (basement of Campus Health) offer no-appointment flu shots for students, faculty and staff during weekday operating hours (9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.). Bring your insurance card. Medicare plans are not accepted.

Read more stories on faculty and staff at TheWell.UNC.edu