Flu vaccine shortage poses challenge

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 26, 2004

ROANOKE RAPIDS – The shortage of the flu vaccine coupled with the early start of last year’s flu season is prompting Halifax Regional Medical Center (HRMC) officials to get geared up for potential challenges they may face in delivering patient care in the coming months.

The vaccine has been in high demand and short supply since the start of the flu season when British regulators unexpectedly shut down a major flu-shot supplier, citing manufacturing problems at the Chiron Corp. factory in England.

Roughly 46 million doses destined for the United States had been made there.

&uot;Prior to being notified of the shortage, we were waiting for the vaccine to come so that we could administer shots to our employees,&uot; said Susan Swails, RN-C, infection control nurse.

&uot;In order to protect our patients against the spread of infection we must properly arm our employees with the tools they need to prevent them from getting sick.&uot;

Swails stated she has received an influx of calls from the community expressing their concern and inquiring about the availability of flu vaccine.

The Medical Center has not provided flu shots to the public with the exception of a few occasions when there was vaccine left over from the employee vaccinations.

In these rare occasions, shots were provided for a fee at Halifax HealthLink and Halifax Works.

At last check, hospital officials are not sure if they will receive any vaccine so they have taken some steps to plan for the onset of flu season in our community.

&uot;It is critical that we evaluate our existing plans for handling such threats and take steps necessary to be as prepared as possible,&uot; said M.E. Gilstrap, HRMC president.

&uot;Things like this normally come with very little warning so taking precautionary measures is our best defense. &uot;

According to Gilstrap, currently the hospital is re-accessing its Infectious Disease Emergency Plan.

The Medial Center staff has evaluated its internal response system and met with other local agencies to review contingency plans.

Further, HRMC is working with Halifax and Northampton County Health Departments to provide educational materials to the public.

State Health Director Leah Devlin sent out letters late Friday afternoon to physicians and other practitioners statewide notifying them that they cannot give the flu vaccine to anyone who’s not in the high-risk category.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the high-risk category (those who should receive the vaccine) are people 65 years old or older, children 6 to 23 months, adults and children with chronic health conditions, women who will be pregnant during flu season, resident of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, children aged 6 months to 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy, healthcare workers involved in direct patient care, and out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children younger than 6 months.

Hospital employees are receiving regular updates on how the flu vaccine shortage impacts them in their respective jobs.

It was communicated to employees that when and if the vaccine arrives a specific criteria provided by the CDC would be used to determine who would get the shot.

Employees considered at highest risk would be the first to receive the vaccine.

The following protocol would be followed in administration for the vaccine:

Staff giving direct patient care. Each position will be evaluated by the employee health nurse and infection control nurse.

If vaccine remains available after the above group is vaccinated, then those staff members that meet the criteria outlined by the CDC criteria.

The next category that would receive the shot if it is available includes any employee requesting the vaccine will be vaccinated.

After any employee requesting the shot received their vaccine, remaining vaccine would be used for hospital retirees and possible hospital volunteers.

In the interim, Swails advises that simple steps to prevent getting the flu include washing your hands with soap and warm water or use an alcohol based hand rub or gel frequently, especially after visiting public places or being in contact with anyone with a cold or the flu.

Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth.

Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Turn your head (never cough in the direction or someone else) and cough or sneeze into a tissue.

If tissues are not available, cough or sneeze into the inside of your elbow.

Do not take young children, those with immune system problems or the chronically ill into large crowds unnecessarily when the flu is in your community.

Avoid close contact (holding, hugging and kissing) with anyone who has a cold or the flu.

Stay home from work or school and avoid public activities for at least 5 (7 for children) days if you have symptoms of the flu.

Do not share items that can spread germs.

Clean things that are touched often in household, classroom and childcare settings; door or refrigerator handles, phones, water faucets, etc.

Beginning October 25, HRMC will provide a package to individuals entering the hospital through the Outpatient and Emergency Departments containing a mask, hand sanitizer, tissues, and instructions for usage to decrease the spread of any infection.