KHI News Service

One in five county health departments out of flu vaccine, many more low on supply

Early and more severe season blamed for shortages

By Phil Cauthon | January 24, 2013

Weeks before the flu season typically peaks, nearly half of Kansas' county health departments report depleted or low supplies of influenza vaccines.

The Kansas Association of Local Health Departments surveyed its 99 members Wednesday, asking which had depleted or nearly depleted their supply of flu vaccine. Among the 43 that replied:

• 21 are completely out,

• 17 are "low on supply," and

• Five were able to restock after running out once or more.

Michelle Ponce, the association's executive director, said in many rural communities, county health departments are the primary place people get flu shots because other health care providers and pharmacies tend to be fewer and far between.

Nine-year-old Abigail Wimbley being vaccinated by nurse Rebecca Goodloe at the Franklin County Health Department. Abigail's 13-year-old brother J'IL (left) was vaccinated, too.

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"In many rural areas, you're not going to have a Walgreens (pharmacy) in town that you can go to (for a flu shot). Many private providers do give flu shots, but all health departments do."

The Sedgwick County health department was the sole exception. It didn't provide the vaccine this year, "based on the abundance of other providers offering them in the community," Ponce said.

Early vaccine shortage

In the survey, many health department officials indicated two factors were involved in the shortage: Fewer doses were ordered this year after many went unused last year and this season there was higher early demand.

"We were out by December 31st," wrote Kandy Dowell of Elk County. "Last year I ordered the usual amount and had to waste 120 doses, so I didn’t order as much this year."

"Pawnee County Health Department has given over 1,500 doses already. This is about 550 more doses than last year," Mary Beth Herrmann, the administrator, wrote, indicating she was low on all but one type of flu vaccine.

Marcia Hansen, Republic County administrator, wrote: "We have reordered numerous times and have given nearly twice the amount (of shots) we have in previous years...We have had a number of people come from neighboring counties during the past weeks."

In Wabaunsee County, administrator Janet Wertzberger wrote: "We ran out of flu vaccine about the 15th of December and did not try to order more because we did not want vaccine going to waste again this year... We did not have requests for vaccines until the national media started talking about the flu as an epidemic."<a name="continued"></a>

More severe flu season so far

This year's flu season so far has been more severe than in 2012, said Charlie Hunt, state epidemiologist at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. But that doesn't necessarily indicate how the rest of the year will go, he said.


Percentage of visits to Kansas health care providers for influenza-like illness. The red line indicates 2013; the two blue lines indicate 2012 and 2011.

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"Last year's levels were nowhere near what we've seen so far this year," Hunt said. "We don't know yet what the peak is going to be for this season...February is pretty typical over the last 10 years. We've seen a peak in October during the pandemic of 2009 and 2010, but having it start to increase in December is a little odd."

Hunt said the number of cases could go up or down.

"It will depend on how many people are vaccinated, and how many people are listening to messages about staying home when they're sick, covering their coughs and sneezes, washing hands," he said. "All those are factors."

KDHE is part of a nationwide network for tracking flu outbreaks.

"All of that information is used to determine what the next year's influenza vaccine should be made up of," Hunt said.

During the influenza pandemic of 2009-2010, KDHE tracked the supply of flu vaccines as part of the national effort to monitor distribution. But Hunt said the agency otherwise does not routinely keep tabs on the flu vaccine supply around the state.

"It's something to consider," Hunt said. "We're always looking for ways to improve."

Neither does the county health department association regularly track vaccine supplies, though it agreed to informally survey its members at the request of KHI News Service.

Keeping tabs on supplies is complicated by the variety of flu vaccines available for different age groups, including some that are only available to children receiving public assistance. About half of the health departments that had otherwise depleted their vaccine supply still had shots available for qualifying underinsured children via Vaccines for Children (VFC).

At Pratt County Health Department, Crystal Stapleton said she had 20 doses reserved for the children's program, but had spent days without luck trying to restock vaccines for private-pay patients.

"If someone comes in with private insurance needing the flu shot that is under the age of 18 but is six years and older, I refer them to the Dillons (pharmacy) here in Pratt," she said.

Pharmacies generally offer walk-in flu vaccines for about $30. Most of the Walgreens called by KHI News Service reported dozens of vaccines available for all ages. But three of Topeka's nine stores said they had fewer than 10 left, as did four of Wichita's 12 stores.

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