- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

Flu vaccines are running low or have been depleted entirely at most local public health clinics, while emergency rooms and doctors’ offices are becoming increasingly crowded with patients complaining of flulike symptoms.

Maryland officials said yesterday that the state has diagnosed more than double the number of 147 lab-confirmed flu cases last year, with 398 cases this year. The figure alarmed state health officials because the flu season typically begins in December, peaks in February and fizzles out in March.

The early spike coupled with ongoing vaccine shortages prompted Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday to order 100,000 doses of the inhalable FluMist vaccine at a reduced cost from Gaithersburg-based MedImmune Inc., a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

The FluMist sells for $46 per dose. Mr. Ehrlich’s office said the state purchased the doses at a reduced price, which was not disclosed.

Mr. Ehrlich also said Maryland will receive an additional 2,500 injectable flu vaccine doses in the next two weeks for infants, young children, the elderly and persons with chronic health conditions.

“Our goal in obtaining both types of vaccine is to ensure the best management of available resources,” Mr. Ehrlich said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, the federal government announced the purchase of 375,000 flu shots, which will be available next month. The shots were purchased from Britain-based drug manufacturer Chiron, according to the federal Health and Human Services Department.

Health Secretary Tommy G. Thompson also announced that his department had negotiated a contract for 3 million doses of FluMist that state and local health departments can purchase if needed. The FluMist is available immediately.

That arrangement was made separately from Maryland’s deal with MedImmune, state health officials said.

The announcement yesterday came several days after the federal government said that more than 100,000 doses of the vaccine would be rushed nationwide from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta to combat vaccine shortages.

However, area public health officials said the additional doses probably won’t be enough to meet the continued demand for flu shots.

“I’ve been in public health for 30 years, and I’ve never seen a run on vaccine like this,” said Dr. Charles Konigsberg, director of the Alexandria Health Department.

“We might get another 50 doses or so,” Dr. Konigsberg said, referring to the CDC shipments. “But that’s not going to meet the need. People should shop around and see if there are some private sources available.”

Fairfax County Health Department officials said they expect an additional 135 doses from the CDC. However, supplies still will be so low that officials do not plan to reopen health clinics.

“We’re getting so few [flu shots] that we’re not publicizing it,” said Kimberly Cordero, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Health Department. “These few doses are going to high-risk individuals by appointment only.”

Montgomery County ran out of vaccine last week, and officials are awaiting 1,600 additional doses in the next two weeks, said county Health Department spokeswoman Mary Anderson.

In Prince George’s County, health officials said they have a limited supply of vaccine doses that are available only to high-risk persons — the elderly, children under 2, those with chronic medical conditions, and women in the second and third trimester of pregnancy.

But not all jurisdictions are out of flu shots just yet.

More than 200 D.C. residents lined up at 8 a.m. yesterday at the former D.C. General Hospital, where the D.C. Health Department administered flu shots. When the clinic ended, health officials still had doses left over, said Dr. Walter Faggett, interim chief medical officer for the District.

“We’ve probably got about 200 or so doses left,” Dr. Faggett said. “We’re in good shape right now. As far as our hospital emergency rooms, they’re busy. The flu is really starting to get in here, but the community is so well immunized that I think we’ll be in good shape.”

The CDC classifies the level of influenza activity in states in five categories based on lab-confirmed cases and reports of activity. Those categories are no activity, sporadic, local, regional or widespread. Virginia is one of 24 states in the country with widespread activity, Maryland reports regional activity and the District has local activity.

Doctors at private practices also say supplies are running low.

“The flu is hitting us and supplies are short,” said Dr. Martha White, director of research for the D.C.-based Institute for Asthma and Allergy.

Dr. White said supplies would not have been so low if insurance companies had covered the cost of the FluMist vaccine. Many patients whose plans did not cover FluMist sought the flu shots instead, depleting supplies for the high-risk population unable to take FluMist.

Dr. White said FluMist is not approved for high-risk individuals. It is only supposed to be used by healthy people ages 5 to 49. Unlike flu shots, which are made with killed influenza virus, FluMist is made with weakened but live virus.

Owing to the shortage of flu shots, several insurance plans during the past week announced they would begin covering FluMist.

“Demand wouldn’t have been so high if the insurance companies anted up and paid,” Dr. White said.

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