While many Americans search in vain for flu shots, members and employees of Congress are able to obtain them quickly and at no charge from the Capitol's attending physician, who has urged all 535 lawmakers to get the vaccines even if they are young and healthy.
The physician's office has dispensed nearly 2,000 flu shots this fall, and doses remained available yesterday. That is a steep drop from last year's 9,000 shots, a spokesman for attending physician John F. Eisold said, because many congressional employees have voluntarily abided by federal guidelines that call for this season's limited supply to go mainly to the elderly, the very young, pregnant women, long-term-care patients and people with chronic illnesses.
But people of all ages who are credentialed to work in the Capitol can get a shot by saying they meet the guidelines, with no further questions asked, said the spokesman, who cited office policy in demanding anonymity.
"We leave it up to people to read the guidelines" issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and then to state whether they want the shot, Eisold's spokesman said. "We don't ask. We trust people. . . . Most of the people have been very good."
The policy applies to thousands of legislative staffers, police officers, construction workers, restaurant employees, journalists and others who work in the Capitol complex.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), a heart surgeon, sent letters urging his 99 colleagues to get the shots because they mingle and shake hands with so many people, his spokeswoman, Amy Call, said. She said she did not know how many senators have taken his advice.
Eisold "is a big believer that members of Congress are at high risk, because they shake hands with a lot of people" and then visit veterans centers and other concentrations of susceptible people, his spokesman said. Because lawmakers can be both victims and spreaders of flu, he said, Eisold urged all 535 to get the shots.
The practice appears to directly contravene the instruction being given by the government's executive branch.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson reiterated the Bush administration's guidelines at a news conference yesterday afternoon at his department's headquarters at the foot of Capitol Hill.
"What we are telling people is: If you are not in a priority category, do not get the shot," he said. "If you are one of the doctors who got vaccine in the early shipments, please do not give it to people who are not in one of the classifications I have just spelled out."
Thompson was accompanied by officials from the departments of Justice, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security; the surgeon general; the directors of the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration; and two executives of Aventis Pasteur, the sole maker of injectable influenza vaccine still available for the U.S. market this season.
The White House medical unit is giving flu shots only to staff members "meeting the CDC guidelines," said Trent D. Duffy of the press office.
The target populations for flu vaccination, as described by the CDC guidelines, include people older than 65, children 6 months to 23 months in age, people ages 2 to 64 with chronic illnesses, medical workers directly involved in patient care and several smaller "risk groups."
The office of the Capitol's attending physician began dispensing the vaccine as soon as it arrived on Sept. 30, the spokesman said. After the CDC announced on Oct. 5 the guidelines addressing the shortage, he said, the office began asking applicants to read the guidelines and to decide whether they wanted a flu shot.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who is 50, said he got a flu shot as soon as it was available, "before I knew there was a problem."
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), 62, said in an interview yesterday: "I haven't done it yet, but I want to. We're not in the priority category" set by the CDC. "But I think the [Capitol's] doctor makes a good case. We can pick it up and spread it" through interactions with constituents.
Thompson called the news conference in part to announce another small addition to the vaccine supply: 2.6 million more doses that Aventis Pasteur will deliver in January.
Aventis Pasteur, the vaccine division of a European pharmaceutical company, is one of two firms currently licensed to sell injectable vaccine in the United States. The other one, Chiron Corp. of California, made about 48 million doses at a British plant outside Liverpool. All of that was impounded early this month by British regulators because bacterial contamination was found in some samples.
Aventis Pasteur, which makes influenza vaccine in northeastern Pennsylvania, will make 58 million doses for the United States this year. This total is about 8 million more than it originally planned to produce.
Combined with 2 million doses of a "live" virus vaccine made by the biotech company MedImmune Inc. -- which can used only by healthy people ages 5 to 49 -- the total U.S. supply this fall and winter will be about 60 million doses.
Influenza vaccine consists of two strains of influenza A virus and one strain of influenza B -- all genetically weakened -- which are killed and packaged together.
Speaking at the HHS news conference, David J. Williams, Aventis Pasteur's chairman, said the company has leftover quantities of the two influenza A strains. It will start growing a matching amount of the influenza B strain in fertilized eggs this week. Growing, purifying and then combining it with the A strains will take about two months.
Yesterday's event at HHS headquarters appears to have been called in part to counter accusations by Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry that the Bush administration bears some responsibility for the current shortage of flu shots. Both President Bush and Kerry have said they will not seek a shot.
On an easel next to the lectern where Thompson spoke was a graph showing the growth in federal influenza-related spending, from $39 million in 2001 to a proposed $283 million next year.
"President Bush has invested more in research, development and acquisition of flu vaccine and prevention than any president," he said.