PINELLAS COUNTY - Since the announcement that this year's supply of the flu vaccine would be about half the normal, people have been worrying.
County residents, many of them seniors, have waited in long lines for a chance at the few shots that had been available. (See related story)
The Pinellas County Health Department announced on Oct. 8 that no vaccine was available. And Publix supermarkets cancelled all flu shot clinics after Oct. 16.
However, officials say, there's no reason to panic.
"It's really important for people to realize that our flu season doesn't really begin until November," said Jeannine Mallory, public information director for the Pinellas County Health Department. "People don't really have to panic. Yes, there is a shortage, but state, local and national officials are working to distribute the vaccine to the people who need it most."
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is coordinating the reallocation and distribution effort to make sure people who are in high-risk categories can get their shot.
Karen Hunter, spokesperson for the CDC, explained the plan to reallocate supplies. She said the CDC is working with Aventis Pasteur U.S., the manufacturer of the vaccine currently available in the United States, to assess the number of doses that have not yet been shipped. Also, work is ongoing with state and local officials to coordinate the number of doses that are needed where and when.
She said the CDC was prioritizing vaccine supplies to go to VA hospitals, long-term care facilities, children and family practices and other priority facilities.
Mallory and Hunter both stressed that people should be patient. Hunter said it could be as long as six to seven weeks before the vaccine could become available in any particular area of the country. She said plans call for 2 million doses to be shipped out each week over the next 6 to 7 weeks. Mallory said as of Tuesday, Oct. 19, no word had been received as to when doses might be received in Pinellas County.
Both Mallory and Hunter pointed out that there is still time to get a shot before the start of the peak flu season. Hunter said nationally, the season usually runs from December to February. Mallory said in this county, the peak season usually occurs in December and January.
Mallory also pointed out that normally people are not in such a rush to get their shots this early.
"In a regular year, there's not a rush like we're seeing now," she said. "There's no need to get a shot now. Not all (the vaccine) is here yet."
People who are not at risk are being urged to forego getting a shot this year. High-risk individuals should continue to be persistent in contacting their health-care provider or the county health department to know when the vaccine becomes available. Mallory said the county health department would make an announcement as soon as it has any information.
She said in a normal year, between 10 to 20 percent of residents get their flu shots through the county.
According to the health department and CDC, high-risk individuals are identified as those who are:
- ages 65 or older;
- ages six months to 23 months;
- residents and employees of nursing homes and other long-term health care facilities that house persons of any age who have long-term illness;
- ages 2 to 64 who need regular medical care or have chronic medical conditions or weakened immune systems;
- ages 6 months to 18 years who are on long-term aspirin therapy and could develop Reye syndrome after the flu;
- pregnant women;
- healthcare workers in hospitals and doctor's offices, including emergency response workers who have direct patient contact; and
- caregivers and household contacts of children younger than 6 months.
These high-risk people are urged to stay in contact with their healthcare providers and the health department. Also, the Web site www.findaflushot.com will be updating vaccine availabilities. As of Tuesday, Oct. 19, the site showed no vaccine available in a 25-mile radius of Largo.
Prevention is the best protection
For now, officials are recommending that people practice commonsense measures such as frequent hand washing, covering of the mouth and staying home when sick.
According to a release from the county health department, people should protect themselves from the flu by:
- washing hands frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based hand cleaners;
- keeping fingers away from eyes, nose and mouth;
- avoiding close contact with sick people;
- staying at home when sick;
- keeping sick children out of schools;
- not sharing eating utensils, drinking glasses, towels or other personal items - even with family members;
- covering mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing and coughing and then throwing away the tissue; and
- reminding children to practice healthy habits.
Current supplies of vaccine
According to the transcript from a press briefing on Tuesday, Oct. 12, assessments show that 22.4 millions doses have not been shipped. Those doses will be allocated based on projected need to each county in the United States. The CDC will hold back 4.5 million doses to use to serve "high priority gaps" as they are identified in the coming months.
In a release from the CDC on Oct. 5, it was announced that about 54 million doses of the flu vaccine was available. It was estimated that about 30 percent of that 54 million has been distributed. On Tuesday, Oct. 19, an announcement was made that another 2.6 million doses would be available in January. Another 1.1 million doses of "live attenuated influenza vaccines" also will be available.
A worldwide search is continuing to find more supplies
Last year, 87 million doses were available to U.S. residents and 83 million doses were used.
"This is going to be a challenge," Mallory said. "But if everyone works together and those who don't need (the shot) understand they should forego the vaccine, we'll get through it."