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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

Information for flu shots remains in short supply

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

John Toth needed a flu shot.

The 79-year-old joked that he's so old and frail that, "I don't even buy green bananas anymore."

But when he and his wife Mary, 75, began calling around looking for a flu shot last week, they ran into one dead end after another.

Finally, last Thursday, they made their way to the James "Wes" Hancock Senior Center in Oregon and managed to secure a spot in line to get one of 280 available doses.

The Toths, thankful to finally get a flu shot, said it would be nice if some government agency put together one list of places where flu shots were being given and kept that information up to date.

It's a common plea.

In the midst of the worst flu vaccine shortage in history, many seniors in need of flu shots argue there is a severe shortage of something else - information.

In the years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has spent millions of dollars on public health concerns ranging from plans to inoculate health workers against smallpox to West Nile virus protection plans.

But little attempt has been made by public health authorities to do something much cheaper: Provide a list of the places where people can get a flu shot.

"We've really kind of dropped the ball here," said Dr. Jeffery Swartz.

Dr. Swartz, a Millbury family physician, like many other doctors nationwide, has found himself struggling to find flu shots for his patients while some grocery stores and others seem to have available supplies.

"It makes no sense at all" why no one has come up with a one-stop list, he said.

To be fair, there are some sources of information. The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department last week started a flu shot hot line that lists locations and also put those locations on its Web site.

However, the phone line and Web site only list those flu shot locations sponsored by the health department and is only for locations in Lucas County.

Dr. David Grossman, Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner, said he likes the idea of one master reference list that lists all known local or regional locations for flu shots.

"It may be time to just say, 'Listen, let's try this,' " he said. "It sure would help with a lot of the calls and confusion."

But Dr. Grossman did not offer any immediate plans to carry out such a program.

A state hot line or Web site that might refer residents to flu shot clinics in their area does not exist in Ohio or Michigan, and there's no plan to start one.

Maintaining such a list "would be very difficult," said Kristopher Weiss, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health.

He said the state has no way of knowing what private companies, such as grocery stores, have ordered. As a result, he said there's no efficient way to list all the places where flu shots are available.

T.J. Bucholz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, agreed.

"In Michigan, we rely on local public health departments to run flu shot clinics," he said. "So we tell people to call their local public health department, and that information is easily accessible in any phone book."

Many states have taken the same approach, saying it's not up to them to develop such a list.

Their basic message: First try your physician, and if that fails, contact your local health department.

In the wake of the national shortage of flu vaccines, however, some states have tried to alert their citizens to where flu shot clinics - even those being hosted by private organizations - are being held.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health puts such information online and has a hot line, department spokesman Jessica Seiders said.

Still, Ms. Seiders said it hasn't been much help because there's not much information to share because there are not a lot of places with flu vaccines available.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a link on its Web site to the American Lung Association's "flu shot finder," but there's little information available on the lung association's site for northwest Ohio.

Many senior advocates point out that using a Web site as the only source for providing public information is a bad idea because many seniors do not have computers.

Von Roebuck, a CDC spokesman, said one toll-free number or Web site to refer the public to would be great.

"And I really wish we could do that," he said.

Although the CDC might consider such a proposal in the future, he said, for now federal officials are trying to do the best they can managing the current shortage and don't have time to develop such a comprehensive list for the public.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who advises the government on vaccine policy, said while a public information list sounds like a good idea, "the circumstances this year are so fluid that the moment anyone tries to put a list together, it's out of date. There have been some local attempts to do this, but they've just been blown away."

He said the best bet as an information source is local health departments, as well as local media.

He said local media have done a good job updating the public on flu shot locations.

Billie Derivan, director of the senior center in Oregon, agreed that coming up with one centralized list would be tough and labor intensive, but she wishes someone would try.

"There should be a better way. One coordinated calendar would be nice," she said.

If there were, it might help avoid the desperation of some of those looking for a flu shot.

The flu shot clinic at Ms. Derivan's center last Thursday started at 9 a.m.

The first people in line, two elderly women, had shown up shortly after midnight and waited in their car overnight for the start of the clinic.

A few others arrived about 4:30 to 5 a.m.

By 7 to 7:30 a.m., two hours before the doors were scheduled to open, the parking lot was getting crowded.

"I never had to stand in line for a flu shot before," said Gary Shope, an East Toledo resident who has lung and heart disease and is considered high risk for getting the flu because of his chronic illnesses.

"This is a sad state of affairs."

Contact Luke Shockman at: lshockman@theblade.com or 419-724-6084.



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