Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Vaccine runs short as flu season begins


Hospitals gearing up for rush

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Some local health departments and doctor offices have run out of flu vaccine - just as people are becoming worried about a tough flu season.

Meanwhile, some area hospitals have imposed extra infection-control restrictions as growing numbers of sick people seek care for influenza and other flu-like illnesses.

"Flu vaccine is getting hard to come by," said Ginny Lipke, infection control manager for the St. Luke hospitals in Northern Kentucky. "I've been getting lots of calls from people asking, 'Do you know where to get a flu shot?'"

The Northern Kentucky Health Department and Group Health Associates - one of the area's largest doctor groups - reported Monday that they have run out of vaccine, except for those who already have appointments. The Butler County Health Department expects to use up its remaining vaccine by the end of Wednesday.

The Cincinnati and Hamilton County health departments say they still have a few thousand doses left. And several Kroger stores - including stores in Finneytown, Delhi and Amelia - still have some flu vaccine.

Influenza strikes every winter and kills an average of 36,000 people a year nationwide, mostly senior citizens who develop pneumonia as a complication of the flu. This year, however, a strain of flu has hit hard in Colorado and several other states.

In Colorado, more than 6,300 people have been infected and at least six have died. A few other deaths have been reported in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The big concern: a flu strain called type A/Fujian for which this year's vaccine offers only partial protection.

So far in the Tristate, the few cases that have gone all the way through testing have been type A/Panama, a strain that is covered by this year's vaccine. No cases of A/Fujian influenza have been reported to local public health officials.

Season starting early

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center has reported 70 cases of influenza. Mercy Anderson treated 26 adults and six children with flu symptoms over the weekend. Smaller numbers of cases have been seen at other Mercy hospitals, according to Mercy Health Partners spokeswoman Karen Kuhn. Several cases also have been reported at Bethesda North, said TriHealth spokesman Joe Kelley.

Ohio and Kentucky remain listed among 13 states with "sporadic" flu activity. Indiana is among 16 states with "regional" flu activity, according to the CDC.

That means flu season is starting somewhat early this year. In Greater Cincinnati, cases usually peak in January and February and can continue into April.

Helen Dirr, 79, has been getting a flu shot for six years and received her shot a couple of weeks ago at the Price Hill health clinic.

"I think it benefits me," Dirr said. She said some of her elderly friends don't get flu shots because they are worried it will cause the flu, which is not true.

Sandy Johnson, nurse manager at the Braxton Cann health clinic in Madisonville, encourages all patients to get shots.

"There are always people who believe the flu shot will give them the flu, but the very bad news has gotten (some people) over their fears."

No one knows whether the nastier A/Fujian strain will strike here. But some local hospitals are assuming it will.

At University Hospital, administrators are hiring temporary nurses and planning to assign staff to work overtime to open an eight-bed unit just for flu cases and to reopen an idle six-bed medical intensive care unit, said Carolyn Thomas, chief nursing officer and vice president for patient care services.

"We haven't seen the influx yet. But we are ramping up staff because we expect a lot of cases in January," Thomas said. "We have to have a plan."

Hospital precautions

On Friday, Children's Hospital announced limitations on who will be allowed to visit patients.

Since then, three of the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati's six area hospitals - University, St. Luke East and St. Luke West - have said they have started asking patients and visitors to emergency departments and other areas to wear surgical masks if they are coughing and sneezing. So have the five hospitals run by Mercy Health Partners.

"Mercy hospitals have not implemented any visitor restrictions. However, it is important to note that Mercy requires that visitors be at least age 14," Kuhn said.

All this activity comes after Greater Cincinnati has enjoyed three years of declining deaths from relatively mild flu seasons. Now, public health officials worry that some people are ignoring flu shots this year.

"We've had a couple really low years in a row for influenza. This year is looking worse in comparison. That's what has us concerned," said Dr. Judith Daniels, medical director for the Cincinnati Health Department.

Tens of thousands of Greater Cincinnati residents already have gotten flu shots, but there are no complete local figures. No entity tracks the shots given through hundreds of doctor offices, dozens of grocery stores, pharmacies, and several public health clinics, said Mary Sacco, director of nursing for the Hamilton County General Health District.

For example, the Cincinnati Health Department has administered more than 2,800 flu shots and still has more than 3,000 doses left. But Group Health Associates administered more than 18,000 doses before running out this week.

The Greater Cincinnati Flu Collaborative (a group of public health officials and infection control experts) plans to attempt to track flu shots this year, Sacco said.

Nationwide, fewer than 60 percent of seniors get annual flu shots, Sacco said.

Where to get flu shots

First, check with your doctor's office. Some groups still have shots; some don't.

Second, call 931-SHOT or check www.931shot.org for listings of flu shot locations.

Cincinnati Health Department has about 3,000 doses left at its six health clinics. Call 357-7200 or the clinics directly for information and appointments.

Hamilton County General Health District has about 1,200 doses to be distributed at 13 immunization clinics. Call 946-7882 for information.

Several Kroger stores still have flu shots left. Call the store pharmacies for information. At the Finneytown store, flu shots will be offered today from 1 to 5 p.m. Customers should call in advance for a time slot, 522-3310.

Three Mercy Urgent Care Centers in Eastgate, Mason and West Chester report having flu shots left. Information for Eastgate 752-9610; West Chester 777-2273; and in Mason 701-2100.

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Reporter Anna Michael contributed to this report. E-mail tbonfield@enquirer.com

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