Helping Patients Navigate Flu Season While Contending with COVID-19, Part 1
By Adelina Ardelean
The COVID-19 pandemic will still be affecting many communities when the 2020 flu season begins. As an independent pharmacy owner, this may leave you feeling stressed. But the truth is that this is another opportunity for your pharmacy to embrace flexibility and shine by actively encouraging patients to get flu shots.
Keeping patients healthy through flu season can be difficult, especially when misconceptions about vaccines and the coronavirus are already circulating widely. As a Good Neighbor Pharmacy advertising manager, I know how important it is to address your patients' concerns and provide them with trustworthy advice. That’s why I’ve lined up several tips to help you navigate this year’s flu season, particularly around providing flu shots during COVID-19.
Educate yourself now about common flu and pandemic questions
Here are some questions that all pharmacists should be ready to answer when flu season starts.
- What are the differences between the flu and COVID-19?
COVID-19 and the flu can present with similar symptoms since both viruses cause respiratory diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These can include fever and chills, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, stuffy nose, body aches, headaches and stomach issues. COVID-19 might also cause the loss of taste or smell.1 The same measures that limit the spread of the novel coronavirus can also limit the spread of the flu.
Current data indicates that COVID-19 is more likely to lead to severe disease than influenza. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe and require oxygen, and 5% require ventilation.2 The CDC noted that while the exact mortality rate of COVID-19 is still not known, it's believed to be significantly higher than influenza.
- Why is it important to get a regular flu shot during a pandemic?
The CDC believes that flu viruses and COVID-19 will be spreading at the same time, making it even more important to get the flu vaccine. Although the flu doesn't have as high of a death toll as COVID-19, it's still a serious virus. The 2020-2021 flu vaccine will protect against several influenza strains. In addition, a flu shot can reduce the risk of hospitalization. This can help conserve hospital resources likely to be strained from the pandemic.
- Does the flu shot protect you against COVID-19?
This question offers a chance at educating patients on the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine. The flu shot does not protect you from COVID-19. The flu is caused by influenza viruses, while COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2. However, getting the flu shot decreases your risk of contracting the flu, which might lead to complications that could make a coronavirus infection more severe. The COVID-19 vaccine is still in development.
- Does the flu shot put
you at higher risk of contracting COVID-19?
The flu shot does not put you at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. However, it's important to take safeguards when getting the flu shot to ensure you aren't exposed, such as wearing a mask and following all the recommended precautions provided by the professional administering the shot
Be proactive about reaching out to your patients
A lot of patients are already familiar with vaccinations thanks to all the media coverage about a much-hoped-for COVID-19 vaccine. But they're worried about exposure. They need to know that your vaccinations put their safety first.
In addition to easing their reservations about potential contact with people who have COVID-19, it’s important to ask your patients if they’ve had any adversary reactions to the flu shot before. You want to ensure that administering the vaccine won’t trigger an allergic reaction. Taking these extra steps is a clear indication to your patients that you truly care about their wellbeing.
Focus your marketing efforts on this. Change your voicemail to mention flu shots and the safety measures you're taking. Call and text your customers to share this important information with them and post about it on social media.
Leverage social media as a powerful marketing resource
The role of pharmacists during flu season tends to be a bit elevated compared to the rest of the year, so it’s a best practice to get more vocal when it comes to promoting your care services and encouraging patients to get flu shots. One of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to do that is by utilizing social media, which is much more affordable than traditional broadcast advertising.
Steve Hoffart, a Good Neighbor Pharmacy advisor and the owner of Magnolia Pharmacy, runs social media campaigns every flu season. He clearly communicates the benefits of getting a flu shot at his independent pharmacy and even posts photos and videos of the shots themselves once they arrive.
Because of the pandemic, you'll also want to share all the sanitizing and security precautions you're taking. Consider posting photos of how you're cleaning your store or showing where customers can get vaccinations outside. This reassures patients that you’re taking all the necessary measures to maintain a safe environment while providing flu shots during COVID-19.
I spoke with Steve to see how Magnolia Pharmacy was addressing coronavirus concerns and he told me they’re posting informative videos about COVID-19 at least once or twice a week.
"We had an early video on making your own hand sanitizer that got 40,000 views and I only paid $50 to boost it on Facebook," he explained. "It’s easy to create your own posts about how you're cleaning your work stations every hour, wearing gloves or doing temperature screenings. We need to be forthcoming and communicate what you’re doing to protect your patients."
Call and text your patients
Start calling and texting your customers now, even before the flu shots are in, and let them know how the process will work. This helps them know you're on top of things, including COVID-19 safety precautions.
Once the flu shot is available, call and text your high-risk population first.
"Take the time to text 15 or 20 patients a day. That will begin to generate some leads," Steve advised. "Once we received the shingles shot back in stock, we segmented out patients who filled prescriptions either over 50 or had medications that made them high risk. We called and encouraged them, and that really helped."
You can also call everyone who got the flu shot last year and let them know it's available again. Remind them that the process for getting one has changed a little because of the pandemic.
Be proactive with signage
Don't just wait for customers to come to you. Signage is perfect for educating patients on the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine, whether it's flyers taped to your pharmacy’s front door, placards on your prescription counter or posters hung in the common areas of your local college. Just make sure to include all the safety precautions you're taking in your signage so customers know what to expect when they visit your store.
Capitalize on your freedom to be creative
As an independent pharmacy, you can be more creative with how you reach out to your community. Hold a Zoom meeting with business owners, join a virtual Chamber of Commerce meeting or call nursing home managers in your region. Ask how you can help with immunizations and then brainstorm ways to meet those needs.
You might even want to expand your marketing message to include other ways you’re keeping patients healthy through flu season. For example, a lot of consumers have been shopping on Amazon lately for supplements, which have been subject to shipping delays due to overwhelming demand. Let your customers know they can purchase supplements at your pharmacy and call out if they have the option to pick them up curbside or have them delivered the same day.
Get the word out fast
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate at which situations change seems faster than ever. That means you need to be just as quick, if not quicker, providing guidance to your patients. It’s also important to use a variety of touchpoints to ensure you’re reaching as many people in your community as possible, whether that’s through social media, phone calls, emails, signage or a combination of multiple channels.
"For pharmacies that have never had a big flu shot business in the past, this is the year to really market it. People are going to hunt out places for flu shots," Steve said. "We're going to get a lot more asks. We must be ready."
All of this might feel like a lot, but remember: the role of pharmacists during flu season is bigger than ever. Immunizations are vital to successfully navigating flu season and your independent community pharmacy is well positioned to make a huge difference in the lives of your patients.
Read part 2 of this series to learn how to protect your patients when they visit your pharmacy >
Not sure if you have the capacity to ramp up your marketing efforts right now?
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm
2. World Health Organization. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report – 46. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200306-sitrep-46-covid-19.pdf