Seeking a dose of prevention

Thousands of people crowd grocery stores, senior expos and clinics in search of the elusive flu vaccine

October 14, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon, Linell Smith and Lisa Goldberg | Stephanie Desmon, Linell Smith and Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

At the state fairgrounds in Timonium, the first senior citizens arrived before dawn yesterday after word got out that 2,000 doses of harder-to-find-by-the-day flu vaccine would be available.

They sat in traffic, crawling along York Road, then waited in line for hours at a senior expo - some in wheelchairs, others lugging oxygen tanks. At least one elderly woman passed out.

George Counts, a 59-year-old Cockeysville resident with heart and lung disorders, arrived at 9 a.m. and got his shot six hours later. "I look at it this way," he said. "I don't have much choice. I can't get it anywhere else. I don't know where I'll get it if I don't get it here."

Across the state and the nation, millions of people are scrambling for flu shots after British officials suspended the manufacturing license of Chiron Corp., which was expected to provide nearly half the United States' vaccine supply this year.

In Potomac, Banafsheh K. Parsee kept pestering her 11-month- old daughter's pediatrician. She desperately wants Nina to be protected from the flu, she said, but the doctor has no vaccine and others won't share. Flu clinics like the one in Timonium typically don't give shots to young children, and Parsee doesn't know where to turn.

"I don't care how much it costs," she said. "Not having access to it is the issue."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is trying to direct the existing supply to those who need it the most: the very young, the elderly, patients with chronic health conditions, and health-care workers who may have to treat flu victims.

`Thinking irrationally'

In some areas, the result has been something akin to panic. "The word `shortage' has people thinking irrationally," said Dr. James C. Kleeman, a Towson internist.

Kleeman has been inundated with calls from patients. He thinks he has enough vaccine for those considered high-risk, and he plans to run flu clinics for them on two Saturdays. His office has called the patients, told them that they are entitled to flu shots, and advised them when to show up.

"They still want to come in earlier," he said. "They're very concerned it will be gone before they get here."

The shortage has caused an odd change of heart for parents of children who visit the Pediatric Center in Catonsville. "It's funny," said Dr. Willard Standiford. "Before the [shortage], we'd see people and ask if they wanted the flu vaccine. They said, `I don't think I'm going to get it this year.' Now those same people are asking for it."

Clinics drawing crowds

Because many private doctors have no vaccine and many employers have canceled worksite inoculations, flu clinics at grocery stores and pharmacies have been packed.

At the Giant on Wilkens Avenue in Catonsville this week, the parking lot was jammed with cars, but few of their owners were shoppers. Instead, hundreds of people waited for shots in lines that snaked through three aisles.

Soon flu shots won't be available there either. Steve Wright, national director of wellness services at Maxim Health Systems of Columbia, which conducts Giant's clinics, said all such events planned nationwide after Saturday have been canceled.

Wright says he has often heard the same frustrated complaint: Why does a grocery store have the vaccine and not a doctor?

The simple answer is that this year, the doctor probably ordered it from the wrong company. California-based Chiron has not delivered any vaccine here, leaving the nation with only the supply from Aventis Pasteur, the other manufacturer.

Fran Lessans, president of Passport Health, a travel and immunization clinic with franchises across the country, ordered half a million doses of the flu vaccine - with 20,000 doses for her Maryland clients.

She has received 2,000, and yesterday had about 1,000 doses left.

She hasn't been able to serve her regular corporate clients, she says, because their employees are generally healthy and not at risk. But that doesn't make them happy.

`The absolute worst'

"Everyone is just going crazy," she said. "It can bring out the worst in people, the absolute worst. I've had people call me and say, `You're in breach of contract. You have to honor it.' ... It's very, very unfortunate that there's this sense of entitlement. I'm using the little bit of flu vaccine I have to give to the high-risk folks because that's the right thing to do."

On Tuesday, she said, she took 50 doses to cancer patients at Franklin Square Hospital, and has had requests from other doctors as well. Meanwhile, many who seek flu shots at her headquarters on Fort Avenue in Locust Point are boiling.

"They're angry because their doctor doesn't have the vaccine," Lessans said. "And they question us to make sure we're not giving them the `bad stuff.' They say, `Are you giving me the right stuff? Can I see the package insert?'"

According to the CDC, there is no "bad stuff" because none of this year's supply from Chiron - some of which was contaminated - was delivered.

`Rolling the dice'

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