Tuesday, December 23, 2003

District workers will give out thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and packs of tissues in a massive campaign to stop the flu from spreading, health officials announced yesterday.

In Maryland and Virginia, officials are scrambling to find flu shots that are scarce. Maryland’s flu problem is now being classified as widespread, with more than 1,000 confirmed flu cases reported.

The D.C. Department of Health will distribute the flu-prevention packets throughout the city. The packets include a handout about symptoms and ways to stop spreading the virus, 10,000 bottles of Purell hand sanitizer and 10,000 packs of facial tissues. The prevention campaign will extend into January and February.

“Prevention is always key,” Department of Health Director James A. Buford said in a statement. “Because of low vaccine supplies, we are stressing basic hygiene as a proven tool to fight against the spread of communicable diseases such as influenza.

“In addition, it is important that people stay home if they are sick from the flu. Be considerate of your fellow co-workers and the thousands of residents in the District who are at high risk for flu.”

The limited supply of shots has residents looking for them at hospitals, health officials said.

In Virginia, 101,500 vaccine doses have been distributed statewide. At least 100,000 have been used.

In Maryland at least 62,000 doses were ordered for children, and the state Health Department has ordered thousands more. Exact numbers were unavailable yesterday.

The D.C. Department of Health has given out more than 20,000 doses of flu vaccine this year. The department also organized two flu-vaccine clinics for District residents at the D.C. General Health Campus after finding a remaining 1,000 doses of flu shots.

“There are three times as many orders as what we’ve got,” said Michelle Stoll, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health. “We still have a shortage of the vaccine, but we’re expecting more next month.”

Miss Stoll also said she receives calls every day from people looking for flu shots and that the shots are tough to find statewide.

She said a new shipment of the vaccine arrived last week, but she described it as “only a drop in the bucket compared with demand.”

Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesman J.B. Hanson said, “We’ve already dispensed all the injectable vaccine we received. There may be some doses left in some counties, but we’re not expecting any more.”

Mr. Hanson said Maryland residents can check with local health-care providers to find flu shots. But he encouraged only those at risk — including young children, the elderly and those with health problems — to ask for the shots.

Mr. Hanson yesterday reported 1,020 confirmed flu cases this season in Maryland, which is more than nine times higher than the 147 last season. He said there have been no flu deaths in Maryland so far this season, compared with 13 last season.

In Virginia, 18 persons died of the flu last year; six have died so far this season.

However, Miss Stoll said the flu activity appears to have leveled off in the state.

Health officials said such common-sense practices as covering one’s mouth when sneezing, washing hands frequently and avoiding sick people are another way to prevent the spread of the flu.

The hand sanitizer was donated by GOJO Industries, which makes Purell. Giant Food Inc. donated the tissues.

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