This year’s flu season might be winding down, but the 2015-2016 flu season is right around the corner. Local health departments can begin to prepare for the next flu season by using Flu Near You, an online health reporting system. Through Flu Near You, thousands of volunteers answer a brief, weekly digital questionnaire about their health to benefit their community’s flu awareness and tracking. Flu Near You maps flu-like symptoms in your area and links you to nearby locations offering flu vaccines. Local health departments can also benefit from Flu Near You’s weekly data reports from the system highlighting areas of increased flu activity. Flu Near You is administered by HealthMap of Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the American Public Health Association.
NACCHO is working with the Skoll Global Threats Fund to explore how local health departments can work with people in their communities to enroll them in Flu Near You and leverage the data as part of ongoing local influenza surveillance efforts. With more people enrolled in Flu Near You, the aggregate data can outline regional flu trends more accurately and complement existing public health surveillance systems. To inform research and outreach, NACCHO spoke with Michelle White, Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator at the Person County Health Department in Roxboro, NC, to learn how her local health department is using Flu Near You and to get tips for how local health departments can promote the benefits of Flu Near You.
Getting Started with Flu Near You
In April 2014, Michelle attended the Preparedness Summit session hosted by the Skoll Global Threats Fund about digital disease detection. This session piqued her interested in bringing Flu Near You to her health department, and she spoke with Flu Near You representatives to initiate a relationship. After returning home from the Preparedness Summit, Michelle championed the idea of Flu Near You to the health department with her colleagues and health director, Janet Clayton. With the staff’s support, Flu Near You has been integrated year-round into the health department’s strategic plan, pandemic response plans, and is featured in orientation materials for new staff and volunteers.
“Flu Near You supports public health goals and is a way to mitigate disease,” said Michelle. It is especially beneficial for vulnerable populations because it allows people to get involved and become a voice in the community and in their own health. “They can look at the maps and decide either to get a shot or avoid areas with a high concentration of flu-like symptoms,” she said. Additionally, Flu Near You tracks flu-like illness and not actual influenza. This means that in the future, Flu Near You can provide data for other threats that present with flu-like illness and provide public health responders with real-time data to prevent pandemics from occurring by responding faster to the source of an outbreak.
Flu Near You Campaigns
By November 2014, Person County Health Department had begun to actively promote Flu Near You within the community. At off-site seasonal flu clinics, staff used Flu Near You materials to start a dialogue about the platform. Flu Near You leadership provided the health department with materials such as bandages and a card for documentation of the seasonal flu vaccine, which people are more likely to save since it has their record of immunization on it. Person County Health Department also plans to make cards available during the upcoming flu season for people to “donate” their flu shot in honor of someone, such as a loved one who cannot get a flu shot for medical reasons or someone who has passed away from the flu.
To raise awareness about flu season and the benefits of signing up for Flu Near You, the health department also displayed posters throughout their offices. Health department staff have engaged the community to brainstorm campaign slogans for flu season, such as “Give a hug, not a bug,” and “Be hot, get a shot” in conjunction with a local fire department.
Working with the Medical Reserve Corps
As part of their strategic plan for Flu Near You, the Person County Health Department staff encouraged visitors to register for the platform on a dedicated iPad within the office. However, with staff busy with other duties, they were not always able to dedicate time to walk visitors through the registration process and address their questions. Thus, Michelle asked the Person County Health Department Medical Reserve Corps (MRC) to help, and MRC volunteers spent several shifts signing up visitors and explaining the benefits of the platform to them. MRC volunteers’ concerted efforts resulted in about 17 more sign ups per day than without their help. Using MRC volunteers to promote Flu Near You also served as a good way to keep volunteers engaged.
Michelle is currently working with MRC state coordinator Peggy Handon to run a statewide contest among all MRC units in North Carolina to drive registration for Flu Near You. Information from this contest will help stakeholders to determine if using the MRC is a beneficial way to reach more people to educate them about Flu Near You. As of April 6, Michelle reports that Person County Health Department MRC is on top of the leaderboard and has increased their local registrations during the contest by more than 50%.
Want to get involved with Flu Near You? Sign up today at https://flunearyou.org/ and encourage your friends, family, and colleagues to do the same. To opt in to receive weekly flu data reports from Flu Near You through NACCHO, email firstname.lastname@example.org.