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Officials Struggle With Flu Strategy

Limitations Shared At First Meeting

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2004; Page B02

Jurisdictions across the Washington region are surveying the flu shot inventories of their hospitals and nursing homes and, in some cases, the holdings of individual physicians, local public health officials said yesterday as they met to discuss how the region is dealing with the nation's vaccine shortage.

Many facilities have received limited supplies at best and do not yet know the date or size of any future deliveries. In Maryland alone, 18 hospitals report having no vaccine on hand.

Tanis Mittelman administers a flu vaccine during a clinic at a Giant Food store in Fairfax. In Maryland, 18 hospitals do not have the vaccine. (Larry Downing -- Reuters)

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Meeting for the first time since the federal government announced the possible contamination of 48 million doses of vaccine, the D.C. area health officers acknowledged their limitations in getting shots to those considered especially vulnerable to influenza.

The health agencies do not have extensive vaccine stocks under their control and lack authority over the stocks of doctors in private practice, the officials noted. Several said they had heard of cases of medical organizations generously donating excess vaccine. But "the sad flip side of that," said Arlington County Health Director Susan M. Allan, was intermittent word of health care providers not adhering strictly to the federal guidelines of who should have immunization priority.

Planning for the winter flu season was thrown into chaos in early October when British authorities suspended operations at the Liverpool plant of U.S.-based Chiron Corp., one of this country's two suppliers. Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it would work with the other maker, Aventis Pasteur, to target where millions of still-unshipped doses would go.

But it could be weeks before that is determined. And, added Diane L. Matuszak, director of the Maryland Community Health Administration, "We probably won't know until the vaccine's exhausted what the total numbers will be."

D.C.'s acting health director, Gregg A. Pane, said he was pushing for the CDC and Aventis to distribute some shipments immediately. City nursing homes are in as bad a shape as the 18 Maryland hospitals, with virtually no flu shots available for their elderly, infirm populations.

Officials said the situation for children's vaccine is far better because Aventis supplied that market exclusively. "It's a much, much brighter picture," said Richard Helfrich, deputy health director in Montgomery County.

Yesterday's gathering at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments' offices in Northeast Washington took no action toward any regional distribution plan. Neither Maryland nor Virginia has followed the District's lead, taken Friday, in restricting flu shots to those people in the CDC's high-risk groups. Those groups include children under 23 months, seniors 65 and older, adults with such chronic conditions as asthma and heart disease and frontline health care workers.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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