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Phoenix Children's Hospital Staff Brace For Flu — And Prepare For COVID-19 Vaccine

Elaina Steingard is a media specialist with Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and that means she gets her  flu shot at the annual staff vaccination event, or "flu pod."

About 5,000 hospital staff are vaccinated — that part is normal. 

These are front line workers. They have to be immunized each flu season to protect themselves and their patients. But this is also a disaster preparedness drill to defend against things like bioterrorism or, you know, a pandemic. 

“This is really a dry run for  the COVID vaccine," said Donna Goebel, the manager of occupational health at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. "We put all of our processes in place — our IT, our facilities, our infection-prevention process, you know, how we actually deliver the vaccine safely and effectively and quickly.”

Goebel walks Steingard through the process.

Then it’s into the vaccination room where tables are spaced out to give everyone ample room.

Kayla Kinzer is administering vaccines, and she holds up an oversized cardboard hand to wave us over. 

She’s wearing a bright orange mask printed with little Halloween characters and a matching T-shirt that says “Say Boo to the Flu!” That’s the theme this year. It’s everywhere: on stickers, chalked onto the sidewalk outside and blanketing the staff. 

More importantly, Kinzer is wearing protective eyewear and gloves in addition to her mask. She sanitizes Steingard’s arm, and a pinch — painless.

That’s it.

Goebel walks with Steingard to the exit, she collects a sticker and she’s swept out a side door and back outside. The whole process takes less than five minutes. And Steingard is a happy patient.

“That was — I’ve never gotten a flu shot that painless," she said with a laugh. "I can’t believe it. Wow.”

You can tell staff went to great lengths to make this cute and fun. But it belies the threat they’re bracing against.

“Obviously, every year, we emphasize the importance of the influenza vaccine. But this year, specifically, it’s more important than any other year," said Dr. Wassim Ballan, a pediatric infectious disease physician at Phoenix Children’s.

He says COVID-19 and the flu cause similar symptoms. That could mean trouble even in diagnosing a patient correctly, he said: “And as you can imagine, that would have a lot of implications in terms of the testing, the quarantining and all the downstream effects of that diagnosis.”

The hospital is vaccinating staff to reduce that risk for everyone.

“You know, they’re going to be at the forefront of seeing the patients who might be presenting with an influenza infection," Ballan explains. "And at the same time, you know, if they’re not protected and they’re exposed, then they themselves, if they get the infection, will be able to spread it to, you know, someone else at the hospital — in terms of coworkers — or other patients.”

That’s key to Dr. Kelly Kelleher, the chief quality and safety officer for the hospital. 

“The message that I want people to hear is that we are open and available for care," Kelleher said. "If you need medical care, we want you to come. I get that it is scary in this climate of COVID, but I promise that we are doing everything we can to keep you and your children safe. So, please come see us for care if you need medical attention.” 

Kelleher says some people have been understandably hesitant to get care even in dire circumstances.

“It is concerning for people in the community to think about going out in public, especially into a hospital where there may be patients who have COVID-19. But we have seen patients have delays in care that have not been good," she said.

Kelleher wants people to know they can get help safely. 

But it’s a danger for her, too.  Health care workers were swept up in the COVID-19 surge earlier this year and continue to be hit hard by the virus. That means some are in isolation or quarantine when they’re needed most, putting additional strain on the system.

This effort to vaccinate the hospital’s staff against the flu — and  later COVID-19 — that goes a long way.

And in case you haven’t already heard,  there’s plenty you can do, too.

Ballan reiterates what you've likely heard more than once: “Get your flu shot. Keep washing your hands. Keep your social distance. And keep your masks on when you’re close to someone.”

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Katie Campbell was a senior producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2019 to 2020.