Health Beat: It’s not too late to protect yourself

Vaccination helps prevent serious illness from respiratory conditions.

Katie Kelly, first grade teacher at Edgartown School, gets a shot from Emergency Room Nurse Mike Spiro, RN. —Jeremy Driesen

With COVID and RSV cases on the rise, as well as patients dealing with the flu this winter, there’s no time like the present to address vaccination confidence. Or in some cases, lack of confidence.

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital continues to see patients dealing with all three of the respiratory illnesses.

From Sept. 20 through Jan. 20, the hospital has administered 3,784 flu vaccines, 2,573 COVID vaccines, and 118 RSV vaccines.

Is it too late to protect yourself or your loved ones from these illnesses? No.

The height of flu season most commonly occurs in February, although there’s still a risk of catching the flu all the way up until mid- to late spring. So there’s still time to protect yourself from serious illness as a result of the flu.

“Vaccination remains a critical tool to protect against severe disease, so we encourage people to get the annual flu vaccine and get an updated COVID vaccine,” said Dr. Ellen McMahon, chief of medicine at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

The COVID vaccines currently available are not boosters for the previous vaccines. This new batch is a closer match to many of the coronavirus variants currently circulating throughout the U.S., including BA.2.86, a new variant that’s not yet widely circulating. According to a report by AARP, this new variant has the attention of scientists, due to its multitude of mutations.

“Over time, the virus that causes COVID changes,” said Dr. McMahon. “Your protection from previous vaccines and prior infections also decreases over time. The updated vaccine can help to protect against the most recent variants.”

While we may be later along with RSV, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the normal timing of this season. If you’re 60 and older, and at risk for respiratory illness, you should get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Vaccination remains a critical tool to protect against severe disease, yet exemption rates in Dukes County continue to be the highest in the state among children.

Dave Caron, vice president for diagnostic and therapeutic services at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, reported during a Dukes County Health Council meeting in December 2023 that in 2022, 6.3 percent of Vineyard kindergarten students had an exemption from at least one vaccine, while statewide the average was 1.4 percent. The statewide average for kindergarten students with an exemption and no documented vaccines was 0.6 percent, with Dukes County having the highest percentage by county in the state at 2.3 percent.

The exemption rate for seventh graders on the Island was at 4.9 percent in 2022, versus a state average of 1.2 percent for that age group. Kindergarten, seventh, and 11th grades are the groups monitored in state surveys.

“Vaccines help bring the spread of chickenpox, and other infectious diseases, under control,” said Claire Seguin, chief nurse and VP of Operations at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. “Low vaccination rates introduce a vulnerability.”

That vulnerability could mean now uncommon, but potentially severe, illnesses like measles, mumps, diphtheria, and whooping cough, could make their way back.

While there were no confirmed cases of chickenpox on the Vineyard in October, a suspected case and the subsequent investigation presented a unique opportunity to educate our community about herd immunity.

“Herd immunity protects the most vulnerable members of our population,” said Caron. “The theory is that if enough people are being vaccinated against dangerous diseases, then those who are susceptible are protected, making the spread of this disease unlikely. Ideally, about 90 to 95 percent herd immunity level is needed to prevent the spread of various diseases.”

That’s why the hospital is doing its part to help educate the public and increase vaccination confidence.

“Community leaders on Martha’s Vineyard, through the efforts of the M.V. Vaccine Task Force, an effort initiated by Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, have been supporting conversation around vaccine confidence for a number of years,” said Caron. “One of our goals is to stimulate conversation with healthcare leaders and our school system to develop standards around exemptions.”

To assist in developing those standards among the younger population, Massachusetts opened a school immunization survey in September 2023, and will close it by the end of January. “This will help provide more up-to-date statistics so we can better address gaps in our efforts,” said Caron.

Patients can schedule an appointment to receive the flu, RSV, or COVID vaccine through Patient Gateway, or by calling the hospital call center at 508-684-4500.

Health Beat is sponsored by Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. It informs and advises on health issues, shares health tips, and helps the community to become better acquainted with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the physicians, and staff. For more information, visit