Flu shot supply

Local health officials are seeing such a steady stream of people requesting a late-season flu vaccine that some are also having to scramble to order more doses to fulfill the need.

“Right after Christmas, we were averaging 25 to 30 some calls a day for shots,” said Barbara Piehowicz, the director of nursing at the Washington County Health Department. “I even had people stopping me at the grocery store asking if I had more.”

The Marietta City Health Department has turned to Marietta Memorial Hospital to purchase doses after initially running out of the vaccine.

Vickie Kelly, the director of nursing at the department, said on Jan. 13 alone the department ran out of the 20 doses it had in one day. From the beginning of flu vaccination season in early September until the end of 2013, the city department administered more than 2,000 doses.

“One of the contributing factors is people are visiting each other in November and December in different parts of the country, mixing germs. Now kids are back, colleges are back in session, so if they got exposed at home, it takes a few days to get it, and it’s happening in colleges and cities,” Kelly said.

Both she and Piehowicz, agree that an influx of news coverage about the flu as well as a persistent scare about H1N1 since 2009 has caused an increase in flu shot requests.

The county health department originally ordered 800 doses from private firms and somewhere between 200 and 300 from the state of Ohio. Piehowicz said just after Christmas the department already needed to re-order more.

“As soon as you read something, bingo, our phone is ringing off the wall,” Piehowicz said.

Both the county and city departments say a decrease in supply from the Ohio Department of Health has made it harder to supply enough doses. Kelly also said a recent report of about 20 children dying this year from the flu has scared people more than in previous years.

The ODH has begun cutting back on direct patient care, and more rural health departments can no longer receive as many doses at the minimal fee the state charges. Doses from the state only cost 50 cents each, while doses from drug companies and can cost somewhere in the $20 area, depending on the type of dose. Kelly said the vaccines from Marietta Memorial Hospital cost between $20 to $30 each.

Nonprofits like the Marietta City Health Department are public health services, and won’t turn people away for inability to pay. But with high costs from drug companies and new requirements about billing insurance companies like pharmacies often do, running out has become much more of a problem this year.

“It’s a guessing game of how many you need and how many will come,” Kelly said, explaining that though people over 65 tend to be more proactive and get their shots early, high reports of flu scares are what drive in normally healthy individuals in their younger adult years.

She said she does expect to be able to obtain enough vaccine to hold the weekly clinic at the department each Monday.

Other vaccine providers have also seen a rush in recent weeks.

“There has been an increase here in the month of January because of more flu cases reported out of emergencies rooms and health systems,” said Mary Starkey, a pharmacist at Kroger Pharmacy in Marietta.

Kelly said although January and February are the prime months to contract the flu, it is also the same months that everyone, even suppliers of doses, are running out of the vaccine.

“It’s a matter of time before they completely run out too,” she said, and because it’s so late in the season, those at small health departments cannot afford to buy another large stock if they are not completely sure if they will use them all.

CVS pharmacists also reported a steady stream of people still coming in regularly, but said although they have run low on doses previously, they currently have plenty of doses.

Although increases can be seen in both private and public vaccinations distributors, the public health department’s reliance on state-issued doses make it more likely for them to see shortages in comparison to places like CVS or other chain pharmacies that require insurance and have the spending power to purchase more from supply companies.