Flu vaccine providers hope to avoid last year's problems

Last year, getting a flu vaccination seemed about as difficult as getting tickets to a Rolling Stones concert or "The Producers" on Broadway.

Doctors offices and clinics were swamped with patients worried supply would run out before they got a shot.

After as many as 20 million doses were withheld from Chiron Corp. due to a contamination concern, shipments started coming up short. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a tiered system of distribution in order to insure those most at risk were vaccinated.

This year, with Chiron expected to return as a vaccine manufacturer, health officials hope those seeking a shot won't need to camp out like Star Wars fans for a midnight showing.

Robert Kruml, right, gets a flu shot last November from medical assistant Gail Bailey, left, while his wife Florence waits after already receiving hers at the office of Dr. Zaid Shahla in Bonita Springs.

Photo by LEXEY SWALL

Robert Kruml, right, gets a flu shot last November from medical assistant Gail Bailey, left, while his wife Florence waits after already receiving hers at the office of Dr. Zaid Shahla in Bonita Springs.

Even with a special shipment of at least 200,000 dose being sent to shelters housing Hurricane Katrina victims, CDC officials said they expect a good supply this year.

So far Southwest Florida vaccine providers aren't having a hard time securing doses. And starting as early as Oct. 3 some will start distributing.

"Right now, we aren't expecting any shortages," said Michael Barnaby, spokesman for the Lee County Health Department. "Everything seems to be on schedule."

In Lee County the availability of doses seems good enough that the health department is moving away from its previous model of holding 50 to 60 public clinics. With nonprofit and corporate providers, along with private physicians, Barnaby said the groups were overlapping services.

Working in partnership with the Visiting Nurses Association (VNA), which plans to distribute at least 25,000 doses in Southwest Florida, and Maxim Health Systems, the health department decided to focus its resources on nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

Maxim conducts clinics at major supermarket and pharmacy chains. Publix, Winn-Dixie and Walgreens are major clients. The company plans to distribute between 500,000 and 1 million doses in Florida, said Steve Wright, the company's national director of wellness.

In Collier County, the health department will still plans to hold at least 50 public clinics, in part because the network of private suppliers isn't as developed, said spokeswoman Kelly Robinson.

"The mixture of people offering shots isn't as good here," she said. "We feel like we can do a more efficient job because we have the staff in place to distribute them. We're good at getting mass numbers of people vaccinated."

For the first three weeks, vaccinations will go to those the CDC considers at high risk for contracting the illness, which can cause serious complications. Among those strongly recommended to get vaccinated are: people 65 years and older, people in long-term care facilities, people with chronic medical conditions, children between 6 and 23 months old, pregnant women and health-care workers.

Most shots are being offered for between $25 to $30, up slightly from last year because of new taxes on the doses, Wright said. All providers will bill Medicare Part B and Maxim does accept some insurance plans.

Starting Oct. 24 flu shots will be distributed to those without special needs. The tiered system is important to follow because despite current optimism about the availability of doses recent history says demand and supply don't always match up, Wright said.

Because making vaccinations is not a particularly profitable business, manufacturers don't want to make and health organizations don't want to order more than they can sell, he said. This helps explain why three of the past five years have seen shortages of some sort.

But Ann Vann, president of the local VNA chapter, said the scares end up keeping people away. Her group had doses to spare last year that weren't used because people didn't think there were any left, she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2005 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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