Hospitals outline smallpox vaccination plan

UM and Johns Hopkins to take `go-slow' approach to minimize the risks

January 31, 2003|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center outlined plans yesterday for vaccinating health care workers against the deadly smallpox virus, choosing a cautious, "go-slow" approach designed to minimize risks to employees and their patients.

Hopkins officials said they would vaccinate up to 250 doctors, nurses and other workers - the number the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had requested.

The University of Maryland Medical Center will vaccinate only 40 workers immediately, with the remaining 210 held in "ready reserve" to be vaccinated quickly should a smallpox outbreak occur. The inoculations are likely to begin next month.

Some hospitals across the country have opted out of the vaccination program altogether because of the risks posed by the smallpox vaccine. Based on past experience, experts estimate that about 15 out of every 1 million people inoculated will develop life-threatening complications from the vaccine. One or two of every million will die.

But officials at both large local hospitals stressed their willingness to participate, saying they wanted to be ready to help the region - and the country - should smallpox be released in a terrorist attack.

"We did not want to be one of the hospitals, if at all possible, that opted out," said Dr. Gabor D. Kelen, who is director of both the emergency medicine department and the office of critical event preparedness and response at Hopkins.

Hopkins will vaccinate five or six workers a week on a voluntary basis during the next six to nine months - what Kelen called a "go-slow vaccination." Maryland will vaccinate five a week, stopping at 40.

Those inoculated will not have any contact with patients while their bodies are reacting to the vaccine. This is important because both institutions have large numbers of patients with compromised immune systems, for whom the vaccine could be dangerous, officials said.

Should the vaccinated workers develop adverse reactions and need time away from work, they will not have to use paid time off. At both hospitals, medical treatment and workers' compensation will be provided, if needed.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wanted a much quicker vaccination schedule, but many hospitals, including Hopkins and Maryland, said that vaccinating too many health care professionals at once could be too disruptive.

"We want to do it in a safe manner for both our employees and our patients," said Dr. Harold Standiford, medical director of infection control at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

In addition to staff at its main campus, Hopkins is planning to vaccinate up to 175 workers at its Bayview Medical Center and 100 at Howard County General Hospital, which it also owns.

Dr. Julie Casani, who heads Maryland's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, said Frederick Memorial Hospital initially indicated that it would not participate in the vaccination program. But she said state officials have addressed its concerns and are awaiting a response.

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