Free flu shots help rural Florida community stay healthier

For 64-year-old Leticia Andragón, a flu shot can prevent more than the sniffles. She is a diabetic, has a heart condition and battled pneumonia a couple of years ago. A bad case of the flu could send her to the hospital for a few days.

Thankfully, Leticia was recently vaccinated at the Haley Center in Winter Haven, Fla., as part of a free community event hosted by Optum and UnitedHealthcare, where 400 vaccinations were dispensed.

The Haley Center is a free clinic serving rural residents in Polk County, about 60 miles south of Orlando. It works with a population that is mostly at 200 percent below the poverty level, including homeless clients. Since being founded in 2002, the Haley Center has grown to serve almost 4,000 people each year.

“Our patients don't have $20 for a flu shot,” said Haley Center Director Donna Armes. “Yet it is so important that they get vaccinated because they are at a higher risk of getting sick than the rest of the population. If we can keep them out of the hospital, it is good for them, their families and for all of us.”

Volunteer nurses with Optum, part of the UnitedHealth Group family of businesses, and Dr. Gregory James, regional medical director for Optum, provided flu shots to dozens of patients and answered questions about flu prevention and care. The vaccines not administered during the event were donated to the clinic to use during flu season.

“We are all from here and we all feel like we should give back to the community we call home,” said Laurie Sheffield, an advanced registered nurse practitioner with Optum and UnitedHealthcare in Polk County. “We want to help immunize our neighbor, particularly those who otherwise may not have access to a flu shot. A healthier community is something that benefits us all.”

Millions of cases are expected this flu season, which began in the fall and ends in May. The peak months are December through February. Dr. James emphasized that the flu vaccine is the single, most effective form of prevention, based on data by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is true that some people may still get the flu, but those who have had the vaccine often don’t have a severe case,” Dr. James said.

As for Leticia, she is happy to have received her flu shot.

“When I got pneumonia, I seriously thought I'd die," she said. “With God's help and this vaccine, I hope to be around a long time.”

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