Thousands of federal workers will be able to get free flu shots at their agencies next week if they fall into a high-risk category, the Health and Human Services Department said yesterday.
Federal Occupational Health, a part of the Public Health Service, is distributing doses to its clinics for use starting Wednesday, HHS spokesman Bill Hall said. Federal Occupational Health provides health care services to about 240,000 federal employees, with most of them in the Washington area, he said.
Hall stressed that steps will be taken "to ensure that we are covering the right people. People will be asked if they are in a high-risk category. If they answer yes, then we will ask if you can tell us what category you are in."
Because of a nationwide shortage of flu vaccine this year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged healthy people ages 2 to 64 to go without to help ensure that those most vulnerable -- among them, seniors, adults with chronic health conditions and pregnant women -- can be vaccinated.
Flu shots, usually a mundane topic every October and November, have emerged as a political sore point following the announcement by British authorities that they were shutting a manufacturing plant that was to supply 48 million doses, half of the U.S. inventory this year.
Nearly 2,000 members of Congress and congressional aides received free flu shots this month without waiting in line. The Capitol's attending physician, in seeming contradiction of CDC guidelines, had urged lawmakers to be vaccinated because of their routine contact with the public.
The decision triggered public outcry. Ever since word of the vaccine shortage Oct. 5, desperate people, many of them elderly, have stood in hours-long lines at grocery stores and clinics to obtain their shots. An elderly woman fell and died in California after waiting hours outside a clinic. Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush have traded accusations in their presidential campaigns over the nationwide shortage.
On Friday, after pressure from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the congressional physician donated 3,000 doses to the District government for distribution among hospitals, community clinics and private providers. Many had limited stocks available, at best.
HHS spokesmen emphasized that Federal Occupational Health workers would adhere strictly to the CDC target groups. "We're doing the right thing," said Bill Pierce, the department's chief spokesman.
Norton has no problem with this approach, her office said after confirming details with HHS. "They assured us they will be giving the flu shots only to federal employees in the high-risk groups, and with that, the congresswoman had the answer she was looking for," Norton spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said.
Hall said he did not have a tally of how many doses of flu vaccine will be available, in part because the government has no reliable estimate of how many of its workers suffer from such applicable conditions as heart, lung and kidney disease.
Federal Occupational Health Director John Hisle was out of town at a conference yesterday and could not be reached to comment.
His health service purchased its flu shots early from Aventis Pasteur Inc., now the nation's only supplier, Pierce said. The agency buys the vaccine every year for use in its clinics.
Workers in agencies that use the Federal Occupational Health service should start receiving e-mails and notices in the next few days about vaccination schedules, Hall said. The clinics will try to stagger vaccination times to minimize waits and confusion.
Although Federal Occupational Health serves the largest bloc of federal employees, many agencies contract with private-sector vendors for first aid, immunizations, clinical care and other health services for their workers.
It was unclear late yesterday whether the shots would be made available in those other agencies. As of last week, the Departments of Agriculture and Transportation did not expect to offer flu clinics this year.