For nearly three weeks, Mark Everett has watched a steady stream of people who entered the Walgreens store in Sylvania Township head straight for his pharmacy counter in search of one thing: a flu shot.
"Normally we don't start administering vaccines until Oct. 1, but this year we started early and there's been a steady influx of people between 10 and 4 every day at all stores," said Mr. Everett, pharmacy manager at the store at 6636 West Central Ave.
The retailer isn't alone in experiencing an unusual early rush of customers looking for protection against the standard flu bug that arrives each winter.
Rite Aid, Kroger, and other stores nationwide report strong early demand for flu shots - which don't prevent the H1N1 strain known as swine flu - in what appears to be a response to warnings from the Centers for Disease Control to take early precautions against influenza outbreaks.
Walgreen Co., of Deerfield, Ill., said this week it has administered 1 million seasonal flu shots since Sept. 1. In all of 2008, it administered 1.2 million.
Doug Cornelius, a spokesman for Kroger Co. in Columbus, said that since the grocer began administering flu shots on Sept. 1, demand has mirrored that of past years, even though the company usually doesn't provide shots until October, when weather is likely to be cool and people are more likely to think of flu vaccinations.
"It's been remarkably busy at our stores. I think the CDC's warnings have been good and that's why we're pretty busy this early," Mr. Cornelius said.
For the last decade, some grocery and health and beauty aid retailers have begun offering flu shots, typically charging $20 to $35. A nurse or health professional administers the shot in the store, usually with no appointment required.
Traditionally, those shots aren't given until October or November, to provide the maximum protection. But the CDC asked flu-shot providers to start offering shots as soon as they got the standard vaccines - in order to leave time later to distribute upcoming swine flu vaccines - and most have done so.
In the Toledo area, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and Kroger have begun offering shots, with Wal-Mart, Giant Eagle, and Costco to begin soon. Meijer won't offer shots until early October. Prices locally run from $20 to $30, with most charging $25.
John Roehm, chief executive officer of Mollen Immunization Clinics, of Scottsdale, Ariz., a company that runs in-store flu-shot clinics for Wal-Mart, Rite Aid, some Kroger divisions, and about 10 other regional retailers, said high demand for the standard flu vaccine is occurring nationwide.
"With the media attached to the story now and more awareness because of the swine flu, and because immunizations started earlier in the season, the citizens are out there demanding it," Mr. Roehm said.
There has been speculation, Mr. Roehm said, that demand for the flu shot could exceed production.
Some slight production decreases have occurred, and doses available, estimated at one time at 144 million, could be closer to 104 million.
"It's not clear yet what will happen," he added.
Dr. David Grossman, Lucas County health commissioner, said talk of tight demand for flu vaccine is unusual because in many years there is a huge excess.
Also, getting a flu shot early could leave a person unprotected if the bug hits late, say in February or March.
"Normally, I'm out there yelling, screaming 'Don't give it out early.' But that's not the case now. This year I'm sitting back because we have another counter-prevailing issue [swine flu] that will need to be addressed later," he said.
"My only concern about the retailers distributing so much is: Did they give them to the high-risk people or just those who had the money?" Dr. Grossman said.
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