SNOW HILL – Swine flu numbers appear to be static and the swine flu vaccine is arriving on a more regular basis, county Health Officer Debbie Goeller reported this week.
“The last two weeks there appears to be a slight leveling off,” said Goeller. “We do not know if that decline will continue, spike back up, or stay level.”
The state is tracking the swine flu numbers through sentinel physicians, laboratory testing, the number of hospitalizations for the swine flu, institutional outbreaks and emergency room visits.
Despite reports that the number of H1N1 flu cases is no longer growing, the absolute numbers compared to last year show more influenza overall.
“Flu activity is above levels for this time of year,” said Goeller.
The seasonal flu has also been essentially replaced by swine flu in prevalence.
“Our flu activity, the predominant strain of flu circulating in Maryland and Worcester County is the H1N1 flu,” said Goeller.
The county did not receive its first 200 doses of H1N1 flu vaccine until Oct. 5, followed by another 100 doses a week later.
“That’s a very, very small amount. It’s difficult to decide what to do with that small amount,” Goeller said.
A shortage of swine flu vaccine has affected the entire country, not just Maryland.
By mid-October, the county health department had received more vaccines and was able to hold a clinic for two of the targeted priority groups, pregnant women and children with health conditions.
Currently, available vaccines are only being distributed to priority populations, which differ from targeted groups for the seasonal flu.
The population groups at the highest risk for contracting the H1N1 flu virus are pregnant women; children from six months old and up to 24 months; parents or caregivers for babies under six months; health care workers and emergency medical workers; and adults between 25 and 64 with underlying medical conditions.
The health department has also vaccinated children at nearly all county schools, public and private.
“That was a pretty big effort in and of itself,” said Goeller.
The health department held a vaccination clinic early this month for all targeted groups and handled 800 appointments, around 100 an hour, by pulling staff from other clinics, she said.
Another 900 doses of vaccine were administered on Nov. 12 by appointment. No one waited longer than 10 to 15 minutes to be seen.
Goeller said that despite the focus on targeted groups, they have not turned away people outside those groups who ask to be vaccinated, if they still want the vaccine after staff explains the limited amounts available and the priority groups.
Appointment-only clinics did turn away walk-ins, unless there was a cancellation or the patient was a child, Goeller said.
“I understand it’s going to be a very serious situation when you have this many people,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.
“When you have that many people, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to screen them out,” said Goeller.
Atlantic General Hospital also had a The good news is that more swine flu vaccine is becoming available.
“The vaccination supply is increasing,” said Goeller.
Private health care providers should also receive some vaccine doses by the end of the month.
However, there are no doses currently available through the health department.
“Right now, all our doses are committed,” Goeller said.
The health department has no idea when exactly more vaccines will arrive, though they expect more by the end of November. The intermittent and unheralded arrival of the vaccine is a problem for the agency, because different vaccines target different groups.
“We don’t know ‘til the UPS driver is at the door and we open it up and see what’s inside,” said Goeller.
By January, she has been told there should be enough doses of the swine flu vaccine for everyone to be inoculated.
Seasonal flu vaccine has also been scarce, with suppliers focused on providing swine flu vaccine. The county health department had enough seasonal flu vaccine to inoculate all county elementary school students and hold regular flu clinics, but all that dried up at the beginning of October.
“That was because we couldn’t get vaccine anymore,” said Goeller.
Last week the health department was able to obtain 100 doses of seasonal flu vaccine and expects to get another 700 doses by the end of the month.
The health department has been assisted in its vaccination efforts by Atlantic General Hospital, which handles most of the northern end of the county, while the health department concentrates on the southern half of the population.
“We’re all about trying to cooperate. They do a fabulous job,” said Goeller.
The county, reported Goeller, is also participating in a plan to train paramedics to administer vaccinations to other public safety workers and there is an recent initiative in the works from Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to have paramedics give vaccinations to the public.
The health department has an H1N1 flu information line, with a recorded message (410-632-4321). Callers can also speak to a person if the recording does not answer their questions.