Hunt for flu shots goes on but often comes up empty

Shipments to increase, but U.S. official says shortage will continue

December 12, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

The hunt for elusive flu shots is on, as dwindling supplies cause frantic calls to physicians' offices and lines hundreds long at public clinics, like the queue yesterday that stretched the length of the storefronts of the Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia.

With adults and children bracing against a blustery wind, the two-hour wait for a flu shot seemed worse than the needle itself.

Parents wrapped themselves and their children in blankets in front of a vacant Food Lion store. Adults pulled tight the hoods on their jackets. And everyone asked health department workers how much longer the line went - and whether there was enough vaccine to go around.

By 5:15 p.m., the answer was "no" as the county used up its last 900 doses. Many people were turned away immediately because public clinics have begun restricting the shots to children under 2, seniors and people with chronic health conditions.

"That stinks," said Chris Rikon, of Columbia, when she heard that Howard County was following the recommended restrictions. Her daughter Evie, 13 months, would get a shot, but her son Ben, 2, would have to go without. "I would have felt better had both of them been able to get the shots," she said.

Federal health officials said yesterday that at least 24 states are reporting significant flu outbreaks, nearly double last week's total, prompting a rush delivery of 100,000 additional doses of adult vaccine to the 50 states. The doses will be distributed on the basis of population.

The flu season started earlier and has been heavier this year across the country, driven by a severe strain of the influenza virus called H3N2 Fujian. News reports of the deaths of at least 20 children in other states have heightened public concern.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported 235 confirmed cases of the flu in the state as of Wednesday evening. Last winter, 147 cases were reported for the entire season, which began in late January.

Such news has led more of the public to get flu shots than in previous years, draining supplies.

In the past, county flu clinics have given more than 1,000 doses in a day, said Cynthia M. Lipsitz, medical director for the Howard County Health Department. But "the line snaking outside the door is unusual," she said yesterday, as was the number of children waiting.

The clinic was scheduled to begin at noon, but "I was here at 11, and there were 100 people in line," said Regina Verow, a freelance writer from Elkridge, who brought her daughter Brynne Verow McLaughlin, 23 months.

"You just don't want to take any chances," she said. Also, her parents had been encouraging her to make sure the little girl got vaccinated.

Children are supposed to get a second dose of the vaccine, and health care workers were uncertain that any would be left when the time came for a follow-up.

"At least half a dose is better than no dose," Verow said.

Help is on the way in the form of 250,000 doses of injectable flu vaccine from vaccine maker Aventis Pasteur, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The office announced yesterday that 100,000 adult doses and 150,000 children's doses would be distributed to all 50 states on the basis of population. With almost 5.4 million people - about 1.9 percent of the U.S. population - Maryland would be eligible for about 1,900 doses of adult vaccine. J.B. Hanson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said he didn't know how much vaccine would be delivered to the state.

The adult vaccine was being shipped immediately and should begin arriving at state health departments nationwide by today, according to CDC spokesman Curtis Allen.

The pediatric vaccine would be shipped beginning next month, said Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the CDC.

This shipment would not diminish the shortage, Gerberding said. "We can expect an ongoing shortage of the vaccine," she said.

`Very, very frustrating'

Health care workers say they agonize at having to deny vaccinations.

"It's very, very frustrating for us" to turn away older children and parents, said Lipsitz, Howard's heath director. "Ideally, we like to immunize the entire family."

Her department was also checking people's identification and giving the vaccine only to county residents.

Some things can be done to minimize risk of the flu, even without a shot, she said, emphasizing that people should wash their hands frequently.

Hand sanitizers with a 60 to 70 percent alcohol content are recommended, she said, and people should cough into their elbows - not into their hands - to reduce the spread of germs.

Another option is the nasal mist vaccine, which is available but costs more than the injected vaccine.

In Northern Virginia, 33 Giant Food stores were selling the nasal mist vaccine to customers for $59.95, not including a $25 rebate available at stores and on the Web. The vaccine was being administered by store pharmacists.

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