Thomas Koinis, M.D., chats with patient Thomas Hamilton after giving him a pneumonia vaccination at Duke Primary Care in Oxford. Photo by Travis Dove.

By Michelle Crouch

Julia McLean, 70, knew it was time to get a second pneumonia vaccination. Her doctor had reminded her, but the holidays were coming, so she decided to put it off.

That turned out to be a mistake. In early 2017, McLean came down with pneumonia.

“It was horrible,” said McLean, who lives in Charlotte. “I was really, really sick for three weeks. I felt terrible, I had no energy, and it seemed like it took forever to get rid of it.”

McLean said her story should be a lesson for older people: Don’t put off getting your shots.

That’s especially true when it comes to getting immunized against pneumonia, said Thomas Koinis, a family physician at Duke Primary Care in Oxford. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can be deadly.

About 1 in 20 adults who get pneumonia die, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and people 65 and older are at much higher risk than others. Smokers and those with asthma, diabetes, lung disease and weak immune systems are also at greater risk.

“Pneumonia can be such a blow to your immune system that many seniors never come back to their full health after getting it,” Koinis said. “The risk of heart attack or stroke is increased for up to three months after a severe respiratory illness such as influenza or pneumonia.”

State’s low ranking
The situation is especially bad in North Carolina. The state ranks 49th out of 50 states in pneumonia mortality. The state also has a higher hospital readmission rate for pneumonia patients than many other parts of the country.

In response, AARP North Carolina is partnering with the North Carolina Hospital Association on a campaign to boost the number of people getting immunized, said AARP spokesman Steve Hahn. AARP is providing information at local events and through community partners.

The Hospital Association’s goal is to reduce the state’s pneumonia and readmission rates to a level at or below the national average over two years. That would save 1,000 lives a year in the state.

The association is also pushing local hospitals to do a better job of flagging patients who may be at risk of pneumonia at discharge, said spokeswoman Julie Henry. “When you discharge someone who is frail or compromised, they’re more susceptible to pneumonia when they return home or to a nursing home.”

Koinis said many older people don’t realize that the CDC now recommends that all people over 65 get two different pneumonia vaccines, with the second coming a year after the first.

The pneumonia vaccines also prevent meningitis and the dangerous bloodstream infection sepsis. Both shots are covered by Medicare Part B.

“I have patients who say, ‘I don’t need these vaccines. I’m not around anybody who is going to get sick.’ Then they end up in the hospital, ” Koinis said. “If you’re over 65, you are vulnerable.”

In North Carolina, about 74 percent of people 65 and older have received the pneumonia vaccine, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. There’s no data yet on those who have had both vaccines.

Getting a flu shot every year is important, Koinis said, since pneumonia is often an infection after a bout of influenza. The CDC says it’s safe to get a pneumonia vaccine at the same time as the flu shot.

Michelle Crouch is a writer living in Charlotte.