Friday, December 01, 2000

Flu fight seeks a shot in the arm

Long lines form for scarce vaccine

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        At a Kroger store in Price Hill on Thursday, cash register lanes stood idle while a line of people seeking flu shots snaked 80-deep past the deli and all the way down the soft drink aisle.

        At a Kroger in Mount Washington, people started lining up at 8 a.m. The flu shot session was advertised to run noon-6 p.m., but the store gave out enough numbers by 11:30 a.m. to exhaust its 300-dose supply.

        On Thursday, Kroger stores in Price Hill, Mount Washington and Hamilton were the only flu shot locations open to the public. Many Tristate doctors and health clinics still have no vaccine to distribute, which has frustrated public health officials and sent concerned seniors scrambling all over town.

   • All people over 65. The CDC had planned to extend its recommendation for annual flu shots to all people over 50, but suspended the change once the flu vaccine shortage occurred.
   • People with chronic heart or lung disease, including asthma.
   • People with weak immune systems, including AIDS and those recently receiving cancer chemotherapy.
   • Health workers.
   • Pregnant women who expect to be in their second or third trimester from January through March.
   The Health Improvement Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati runs the area's most comprehensive list of flu shot locations. Call 931-SHOT or check this list of upcoming flu clinics
        Adele Schulte, 85, drove to Price Hill from Mack after her daughter heard about the Kroger flu shots on the radio. She stood for more than an hour, but she got her shot.

        “I think it's horrible. I've been calling my doctor every week, and they haven't had any,” Mrs. Schulte said. “I think the doctors' offices should have got them first.”

        Normally, flu vaccine campaigns begin in October in hopes of getting people vaccinated well before the flu season peaks in January and February. But this year, manufacturing problems delayed production, pushing vaccine campaigns back months.

        Adding to the concern, public health officials have been unable to persuade or compel vaccine makers and distributors to give top priority to filling orders from public health departments, doctors and hospitals that serve the highest-risk populations.

        As a result, providers such as the Northern Kentucky Health Department have had no doses for its clinic patients and may not get any until late December. Meanwhile, grocery stores, pharmacy chains and some corporate employee health programs have had vaccine to distribute.

        For healthy people, the flu is an upper respiratory viral infection that makes victims so achy and fatigued they feel run over by a truck. For the elderly and younger people with heart disease, asthma and other conditions, the flu can be deadly.

        In an average year, an estimated 20,000 people nationwide die from flu and its related complications.

        On Wednesday, Dr. Nick Baird, Ohio Department of Health director, issued a public statement urging “all Ohio companies and physicians” to help make sure flu vaccine goes to the highest-risk people before providing then to healthier, younger people.

        “I am calling on all members of Ohio's health community to work with us to ensure this occurs,” Dr. Baird said. “As flu vaccine supplies are received over the next month, I ask that those 65 and older or who have chronic diseases receive first priority.”

        While state and local health departments can order quarantine for people with tuberculosis and shut down restaurants that serve tainted food, officials say they have no legal authority to seize flu vaccine.

        “If a corporate entity wants to give out vaccine first-come, first serve, that's their prerogative,” said ODH spokesman Randy Hertzer.

        At the Kroger stores Thursday, those in the queue were mostly elderly people who would be considered high risk. Some leaned on canes and walkers. Some brought lawn chairs.

        Many had tried but failed to get flu shots from their doctors or from other grocery and pharmacy chains.

        Heart trouble caused Price Hill resident Charles Kinley, 57, to take early retirement. But he could not get a flu shot this fall from his cardiologist and could not get to a Walgreens store in Delhi Township last week before it ran out of doses.

        “I've been getting flu shots for 15 years, and this is the worst I've ever seen it,” Mr. Kinley said.

        One couple that got vaccinated in Mount Washington — Jim and Eldonna Hartley — actually live in Sebring, Fla.

        “We're up here visiting our daughter,” Mrs. Hartley said. “We were told we couldn't get shots down there until mid-December, so we thought we'd try while we were up here.”

        So far, Ohio has reported no regional flu outbreaks, only sporadic cases. And none has been lab-confirmed, Mr. Hertzer said.

        While federal health officials have said there will be enough vaccine available before the flu season peaks, it remains to be seen how many will get vaccinated before the flu starts to hit.

        So far, most Tristate organizations have received less than half their orders, said Sonya Hall, manager of a flu shot campaign run by the Health Improvement Collaborative of Greater Cincinnati.

        More shipments are expected. Months ago, the Ohio Department of Health ordered 320,000 doses to be distributed through local health departments. It has received 120,000 doses so far and expects another 100,000 within two weeks. The rest will come sometime later.

        Once a shot is received, it takes about two weeks for the vaccine's protection to kick in. That means even if people get shots in late December or January, they could still be protected from the worst of the season, Dr. Baird said.


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