As word has gotten out that the country's flu vaccine is in short supply, Bea Ann Melichar has gotten a steady stream of phone calls.
Seniors who worry they won't qualify for flu shots wonder what they will do this winter, said Melichar, executive director of the Yellowstone County Council on Aging.
"They're old and they're frail and they're saying: 'It almost feels like I'm not going to be able to even leave home,' " Melichar said.
The vaccine shortage came to light last week when a British regulatory agency suspended Chiron Corp.'s license to manufacture the vaccine for three months. Chiron, the world's second-largest flu vaccine manufacturer, was set to send 46 million doses to the United States.
Instead, 55 million doses manufactured by Aventis Pasteur Inc. will be distributed in the United States, as planned, while federal health authorities scramble to find other possible sources of vaccine.
In normal year, Melichar said, the Council on Aging's nine flu shot clinics would vaccinate 1,200 seniors. The council has held the clinics for more than 25 years.
She has advised the seniors to contact their personal physicians. In some cases, she said, doctors may assess their patients' health status and decide that they qualify to get a flu shot.
In Yellowstone County, health officials announced last week that only about one-third the normal amount of vaccine would be available this year. That's about 15,000 doses to meet the needs of 38,000 or more people.
The Unified Health Command in Billings announced a three-tiered approach to dispensing flu shots. The health command is made up of the Yellowstone City-County Health Department, Deaconess Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare.
|onthenet CDC vaccine recommendations|
The plan targets the area's most medically fragile population first, and then broadens to include other individuals, as long as the vaccine holds out. The timetable will kick in Monday, with the first vaccinations offered to nursing home and long-term care residents and their caregivers. Individuals 6 months and older with chronic health problems also will be eligible.
Tier one will run through Nov. 1, before it opens up to targeted health-care workers in the second tier. People who fall into tier three, including pregnant women, all people 65 and older, day-care workers and all other health-care workers, will be eligible for flu shots, if available, starting Nov. 9.
Healthy babies ages 6 months to 23 months will be moved from the third to the first tier, said Dr. Doug Moore, chief medical officer for the city-county health department. Direct caregivers for infants younger than 6 months also have been placed in the highest-priority group.
Moore said the revision came at the urging of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which views babies as vulnerable to the flu's side effects. Moore and other members of the health command met Friday for two hours to reassess the health-care community's response to the vaccine shortage.
"We'll be doing this every Friday until there's no need to do it," Moore said.
Moore said the health department and the two hospitals still are in the process of setting up vaccination clinics that could begin as early as Monday. Once plans are firmed up, he said, the clinics will be publicized.
Moore said the best place for people to get flu shots this year is from their regular health-care providers.
The Unified Health Command also is evaluating FluMist, an inhaled flu vaccine made from live but weakened influenza virus, for health-care workers. Originally, the health-care command said that wasn't an option.
FluMist became a hot item once the vaccine shortage was reported. Moore said he is unaware of any local pharmacies that carry it.
He urged people not to panic over the shortage. "If we keep going on the orderly basis, like we planned, we will have a fair amount of protection in our community," Moore said.
Joyce Burgett, manager of the state's immunization program, said that to counteract the vaccine shortage, her office is urging people be proactive and use common sense. Burgett suggested people cover their mouth when they sneeze or cough and frequently wash surfaces, such as counters and doorknobs, to help prevent the spread of the flu.
"Don't go out in public if you're sick," Burgett said, "and for goodness sakes, wash your hands."