Vaccine Shortages Strike Flu Clinics

Health Officials Say Clinics Canceled as National Crisis Hits Home; Common Sense Is Urged

By IAN FEIN

Public health officials across the Vineyard confirmed this week that all of the fall flu clinics have been canceled indefinitely while the Island waits to see just how many vaccines it may or may not receive.

Officials said they are in constant contact with the state Department of Public Health, and will announce vaccination updates as soon as information is available.

"At this point all the public health clinics that had been advertised have been canceled," said Joyce Capobianco, director of the Visiting Nurse Service for Martha's Vineyard Community Services, which was contracted to administer free flu clinics in five of the six Island towns this fall. "Our phone is ringing off the hook with people looking for information, and what we're trying to do is calm them down. But because of the severity of the situation, with only 22 million doses to go nationwide, we may not even see a dose."

Last week British regulators closed a Chiron Corporation factory for possible bacteria contamination, cutting off almost half the typical vaccination supply of about 90 million doses for the United States. Another major supplier, Aventis Pasteur, is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to distribute 22.4 million remaining doses through state health departments across the country to high-priority groups such as infants, people over age 65, individuals with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women and health-care workers who provide direct patient care.

Last year Island clinics administered roughly 2,500 flu shots, though not all to high-priority individuals. Of the 1,327 vaccinations administered by the Visiting Nurse Service, 604 went to people over the age of 65.

As of yesterday, not one of the Vineyard clinics had received a single vaccine, although a small number of Island doctors who had preordered from unaffected suppliers did obtain some samples. Clinic doctors and administrators say they are maintaining close contact with the state health department, which is awaiting direction from the CDC as to how to allocate the vaccines to the high-priority groups.

"We're in the same situation as everybody else. We all need to be patient and have a little faith that our state health department and CDC will find a solution," said Carol Forgione, an acute care nurse practitioner for Vineyard Medical Services, the Island's only walk-in clinic. "People need to realize that yes we have a serious problem, and yes it's being addressed. But we're recommending that people should not panic; as soon as we learn something we will let you know. Meanwhile, we all need to protect ourselves in any way that we can," Ms. Forgione said.

The state department of public health issued a notice Wednesday prohibiting health care providers from administering flu vaccine to anyone not in a high-priority category.

Vineyard health officials agreed that the most important thing people can do is to aggressively wash their hands. Other common sense precautions include covering mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, and staying at home and avoiding crowds, especially for people who feel ill.

Mrs. Forgione noted that while it is almost certain that fewer people will receive vaccinations this year, the delay to high-priority groups on the Vineyard may not cause too much trouble, as the Island typically sees its first diagnosis of the flu almost a month after the mainland. Influenza season peaks between December and March in the rest of the country.

Although everybody was told to get a flu shot in past years, the CDC recommends that only those in the priority groups try to do so this year. In addition to those mentioned above, the CDC identified the following as high-priority:

* Residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities

* Children six months to 18 years of age on chronic aspirin therapy

* Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children aged less than six months.