It's hit or miss for flu vaccine

Spotty availability irks public, providers


Rosalind Cordish, 57, hounded her doctor for a flu shot for months. But every time she called, she heard the same recording that the office was expecting flu vaccine but hadn't received it yet.

Exasperated, Cordish tried several numbers listed in the phonebook and, when that failed, called her insurance company. Someone there directed her to her county health department, which suggested two clinics. One was out of the vaccine. But Monday, Passport Health Inc. in Baltimore finally gave her the prize she was seeking: a $30 shot.

"I think it's appalling," said Cordish, of Timonium. "You should be able to depend on your doctor."

Many Marylanders looking for protection from the seasonal flu are managing to get their shots, and the situation is a vast improvement from last year. But because of some supply shortages and patchy distribution, the hunt for the vaccine might take patience, persistence and flexibility.

About 78 million vaccine doses - enough to cover demands in the past - have been sent to distributors, said Lola Russell, a spokeswoman at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But while shots are widely available in some places, they're hard to find in others, largely because the manufacturer, Chiron Corp., is running behind schedule and came up short by millions of doses. Factors including fear of avian flu, which is unrelated, might have driven up demand this year, but it's still too early to tell, Russell said.

It's difficult for manufacturers and distributors to predict demand, but given the complicated nature of the process, this year's situation isn't egregious, said David Webster, the president of the Webster Consulting Group, a health industry consultant.

"The vaccine is out there. It's just perhaps every single provider doesn't have their allotment," Webster said.

But try telling that to the health care workers and patients who, as peak flu season approaches, remain unvaccinated - and unhappy.

Where there were spot shortages of vaccine, they affected private doctors, hospitals, long-term care facilities, local health departments, nursing homes and anyone else who relied on shipments from Chiron, said Greg Reed, the program manager for the Maryland Center for Immunization at the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Tisha Dancy, human resources manager at Beltway International, a truck repair and maintenance company, was forced to cancel her company's annual in-house flu shot clinic because her provider didn't have vaccine. Dancy tried seven other providers and finally gave up. Though her two children got their shots, her doctor has long since run out, and she has no idea how she'll get vaccinated.

At Healthy Achievers, a Maine-based occupational health and safety company that serves corporations around the country, only 3,310 of the 150,000 doses of vaccine ordered arrived.

"Because I typically do healthy groups, I'm the last one to get it," said Debbie Jordan, the owner and president. "Right now there are a lot of people in my situation who do primarily corporate groups. We have to evaluate if this is a business we want to stay in."

"It's a shame," she said, "because in case of a pandemic, we would be the ones who would be strategically positioned to get the largest number of people immunized in the shortest period of time. We're setting up people to be ill."

Maryland Primary Care Physicians in Columbia is one of many private practices that ran out of the vaccine within days of making it generally available to patients in November, said practice manager Frederica Purcell.

"We were a little disappointed because the media led us to believe that there wasn't a shortage and we would be able to replenish," she said. "We tried to get more, and it's gone. You can't get it."

Patients didn't hurry to get their shots because they didn't think it was necessary. "Then they call here and find out we're out, and it didn't go over very well," she said.

Not everyone is so upset, however.

Though several Maryland counties haven't received their full vaccine orders, many counties still have at least some doses left.

The state recently received 11,000 doses of flu vaccine from the CDC's stockpile, and recently finished distributing those doses where there was need - including to 12 county health departments. Baltimore City Health Department, for example, held a clinic for the public Tuesday and, with the arrival of fresh doses, plans to add more clinics in the next month.

The Carroll County Health Department lost 1,250 doses a couple of weeks ago when a refrigerator malfunctioned, but the department had administered more than 6,000 shots by then. Because it had completed public clinics, the department did not request more vaccine from the state, said Debbie Middleton, the department's director of communicable diseases.

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