Shortage raises influenza stakes
By Karren Mills
MINNEAPOLIS -- A sudden national shortage of flu vaccine could mean more than some people missing their annual flu shot. It also could mean fewer home health-care visits for some low-income residents in the metro area.
The Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency, which counts on proceeds from its flu clinics to help fund some 80,000 home visits a year, said it might have to curtail them.
MVNA gave 152,000 flu shots last year at its clinics at Cub Foods, many senior centers and about 800 businesses. On Tuesday, the agency was to receive 150,000 doses of vaccine from Chiron Corp. for which it would charge $16 a shot.
Instead, the agency was notified that British regulators had shut down the factory that had made about 46 million doses headed for the United States. That meant no vaccine for MVNA, Chiron's largest customer for flu vaccine in Minnesota.
"We had to cancel everything," Mary Ann Blade, MVNA's chief executive, said Wednesday.
"All of our high-risk clinics are just gone. We're devastated, because all of the proceeds from our program go to make sure that we can care for the poor who have no money and who need home health services -- all of the elderly and the ill adults," Blade said.
MVNA's home visits are mainly in Minneapolis and Hennepin County, with some in Ramsey County, Blade said.
Health officials nationwide are asking healthy people to defer getting the shots so medication will be available for those most at risk, including people older than 65 (about 600,000, or more than 12 percent of Minnesotans), infants from 5 months to 23 months and the chronically ill.
Last year, more than three-quarters of Minnesota residents older than 65 got a flu shot.
The Minnesota Department of Health was surveying medical facilities Wednesday to find out how much vaccine would be available in the state from Aventis Pasteur, a competing manufacturer that is supplying about 54 million doses to U.S. customers.
Although public health agencies don't have legal authority to ration the flu vaccine, the Health Department was asking health care providers and members of the public to help conserve vaccine for those who need it most. The state also canceled remaining flu clinics for state employees, and said vaccine ordered for the clinics would be set aside for high-risk people.
Vivian Krug, director of clinical services at North Clinic in Robbinsdale, said the clinic had ordered 10,000 doses of flu vaccine -- all coming from the closed Chiron factory. The clinic received just 250 doses from another manufacturer.
Last year, the clinic gave more than 10,000 flu shots before running out of vaccine.
"This really hurts us big time," Krug said. The clinic caters to the senior population, she said.
"The phones are flooded with concerned patients," she said. "We're telling them that we don't have the flu vaccine."
Snyder Drug Stores, which got its vaccine from Aventis, was going ahead with its scheduled flu shot clinics. However, patients were being screened to make sure they fit the federal guidelines for those most at risk, said Lisa Kraft, vice president of human resources.
Lines were long Wednesday at two Snyder's stores in the metro area that offered flu shots.
A Snyder's in Apple Valley began giving shots a half-hour earlier than planned and ran out of vaccine after administering about 100 doses in less than two hours. Maxim Healthcare Services, the operator of the clinic, gave people who didn't get shots a list of clinics planned in coming days.
Lines also were long at a Snyder's in New Brighton, where people filled out forms to declare their eligibility for the vaccine. Though the forms didn't seek health information, some people who went through the line said they were asked questions about their circumstances.