Busy schedules and upbringing deter some undergrads from getting the flu shot

By Anne Snabes
Medill Reports

College students balance busy schedules of attending class, completing assignments, maintaining a social life, and commitments to extracurricular activities or a job. Do students also set aside time to get the flu shot?

Some do, but many do not.

“Some people just can’t manage to find time in their schedule to come in to get a flu shot,” said Joan Holden, director of Loyola University Chicago’s Wellness Center.

According to a National Foundation for Infectious Diseases survey, only 46% of college students in the U.S. say they normally receive the flu shot. But that meets the national norm. Americans of all ages receive the flu vaccine at a similar rate of 46.8%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chicago area college students interviewed agree that busy schedules prevent them from getting vaccinated. Anika Mittu, a freshman at Northwestern, described how people can put off getting the shot.

“It’s kind of bad, but I think a lot of people have the mentality of like, ‘Oh, I’m so busy this week, like I’ll do it next week,’” she said.

Whether or not a student received the flu shot while growing up may also affect whether they get it in college, according to Allison Bartlett, an associate professor of pediatrics at UChicago Medicine.

“If you’re not in the habit of doing it before you get to college, it’s unlikely that you’re just gonna wake up and decide to go get a flu shot,” she said.

Members of the military who are being deployed receive their shots first, but the flu shot is available to all personnel. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Areka T. Wilson)

Bartlett said it is important for everyone to get the flu shot. The flu can make healthy people sick enough to stay in bed for a week, and they won’t return to their peak strength for two to three weeks.

“No one has time for that, especially students in college who are going to miss out on a week of class and all of their other extracurricular activities,” she said.

Bartlett also said we want to lower risk of anybody getting the flu, especially individuals that cannot get the shot because of their age or immune system. When people contract the flu, they could pass the illness on to a baby or an older adult.

Holden, the director of Loyola’s Wellness Center in Chicago, estimates that the center will administer 1,600 flu shots this school year. She said most people who receive the vaccination at the Wellness Center are undergraduate students, though some are graduate students. Nearly 12,000 undergrads attend Loyola. The center has already administered nearly 1,400 shots this year.

Robert Dennis Palinkas, executive director of Northwestern’s Health Service/Evanston, said the Health Service administered 3,646 flu shots during the 2018-2019 academic year. 1,488 of these shots went to undergrads. Northwestern has about 8,200 undergraduate students. Some students get the flu shot at other locations than the Health Service, though.

Palinkas said there are a number of obstacles that prevent students from getting the flu shot. He said one is that young people in general believe that they’re “invulnerable.”

“Preparing for getting the flu isn’t really something that they tend to give a lot of weight to,” he said.

Palinkas said students are somewhat over-programmed so they have to set aside time to get vaccinated. Clinic hours may limit their options for getting vaccinated unless they plan ahead. Harper McIntyre, a freshman at Northwestern, said she went to the university’s Health Service/Evanston earlier this month on a Thursday right after 5 p.m to get the flu shot. Two employees told her that the clinic had just closed for the day and that she would have to call to make an appointment.

“It would be good,” she said, “if they advertised that they have [flu shots] or made a specific event for students to get them or something. I feel like I really have to pursue it myself, instead of it being something that’s offered.”

Palinkas said the Health Service currently has a limited supply of the flu vaccine. He said the clinic is planning to give the remaining shots mostly to people who are at high risk of contracting the flu, and it has not been doing a lot of marketing. The clinic is expecting a new shipment of the flu vaccine around November 6.

Rachel Eppler, a senior at Loyola, said she typically gets the flu shot.

“Usually I do because my mom is a nurse, so it’s kind of just been drilled into my brain that I’m supposed to get the flu shot every year,” she said.

Photo at top: Medical experts recommend that young adults get the flu shot to protect themselves and others. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ Doug Jordan, M.A.)