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With H1N1 Vaccine Now Abundant, Flu Fears Ease

January 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With the H1N1 vaccine no longer in short supply, the crowds that once lined clinics nationwide are now gone. But has the rush to get vaccinated slowed too soon? Ray Suarez reports.

JIM LEHRER: Health officials are still urging Americans to get vaccinated against the swine flu.

Ray Suarez has our Health Unit update.

WOMAN: OK. As I have, we have about 100 doses of injectable left.

RAY SUAREZ: The crowds that lined up for hours to get an H1N1 vaccination in the fall at clinics nationwide are long gone, and the rush to get vaccinated has slowed. But is it all too soon?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: There is a sense that it’s over, but it’s too soon to say its over, because it is early in the flu season still, and H1N1 has been very difficult to predict.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control says there’s still plenty of time to get vaccinated, plenty of vaccine for everybody, and there might be another wave of flu.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Flu is probably the least predictable of all infectious diseases. It is continuing to spread from person to person. It’s continuing to make people sick. So, it’s — there’s still time to get vaccinated. It’s only early January. Flu season generally lasts until May. And, although flu is way down, we don’t know what the future will hold.

RAY SUAREZ: And while the H1N1 vaccine is now easy to come by at this CVS MinuteClinic in Virginia, this week, only a handful of people had turned up to take advantage of a replenished supply.

ANNE POHNERT, MinuteClinic: Lots of vaccine and fewer people.

RAY SUAREZ: Nurse practitioner Anne Pohnert says that’s a stark contrast from the fall.

ANNE POHNERT: In mid-October, MinuteClinic medical clinics around the country did receive a small supply of H1N1 vaccine. And we were able to give that to as many people as we could within the priority groups that the CDC determined. It was a really quick, incredible experience, where we would have about 100 vaccines to 500 vaccines in any clinic, and they would be gone in a day or two.

RAY SUAREZ: John and Toi Schell, both in their 60s, said they hadn’t been able to get the vaccine before because they weren’t in any of the CDC’s priority groups. But now that vaccine is being made available to everyone, they were eager to get vaccinated.

JOHN SCHELL: We travel some, and we’re also at church. You’re just with groups of people. And we felt it was important that we get vaccinated, not only to protect us, but to protect other people from catching it from us.

RAY SUAREZ: But not everybody is scrambling to get their H1N1 shot, from anxious mothers…

JANETH VALENZUELA: At the beginning, they don’t tell you the consequences. And I’m worried about a long-term problem.

RAY SUAREZ: … to college students.

DAVID LOW: I’m not really that concerned about getting sick.

RAY SUAREZ: And according to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, that’s not good.

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, director, University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research: Unfortunately, right now, most of the world believes that H1N1 pandemic of 2009 is over and done with, and they have written its obituary.

We very well could be in for a third wave in the upcoming months. And, unfortunately, because of that sense that it is over with, we are not getting people vaccinated. We estimate, in this country alone, that at least half the population is still vulnerable to the disease, either because they weren’t vaccinated or they weren’t infected in the first two waves. So, we have a job ahead of us to try to continue to get people vaccinated at a time when it doesn’t appear that the risk is imminent.

RAY SUAREZ: America has experienced the H1N1 pandemic in a wide range of ways, from the relatively small number of cases across the Upper Midwest, to the Eastern hot spots of New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia.

Nearly 20 percent of the 435 students at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, got the virus. They’re now back after winter break.

How many of you are pretty sure you had H1N1 when it was going around? And how many of you got the vaccine when that was available?

STUDENT: I got it after.

STUDENT: I got it after.

RAY SUAREZ: They all live on campus. Many headed home when they got sick, others to the clinic, to convalesce.

DR. BRUCE KRAUT, medical director, Episcopal High School: So, from the middle toward end of October, we nearly filled to capacity on a couple of occasions.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Bruce Kraut is the school’s physician.

So, when your numbers started to rise, you had to operate like a little hospital. Let’s take a look at one of these rooms.

DR. BRUCE KRAUT: We doubled the capacity using the bunk bed system. During our spike in H1N1 activity, we essentially filled these 24 beds on a couple of occasions.

RAY SUAREZ: After repeated messages home, and lectures for faculty and students, 60 percent of the student body got the vaccine. And Kraut says he wishes he could get it higher still, in case another wave of flu breaks.

With plenty of vaccine available, the new recipients are coming in one at a time. And, luckily, none of the students who came down with the virus had to be hospitalized. So, today, at Episcopal, right there with the oil and vinegar on the dining room table, hand sanitizer. But the urgency to use it seems to have worn off.

In Geneva, right before New Year’s Eve, the director general of the World Health Organization had an upbeat report of the state of play in many countries.

DR. MARGARET CHAN, director general, World Health Organization: The long overdue influenza pandemic is so moderate in its impact, it’s probably the best health news of the decade.

RAY SUAREZ: There have been some 47 million cases of H1N1 nationwide. And, while, for some older Americans, H1N1 has caused severe illness, many people over 60 have an immunity from earlier flus.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: But for children, for young adults, the rate of death from H1N1 is at least five times higher than from a usual flu season. And, for children, at least, it has been as bad as the 1968 pandemic. So, by all means, it has not been a 1918, it has not been a 1957, so far. But it’s a disease that has made many people sick, many of them severely ill, and, sadly, has killed more than 10,000 Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Nearly 1,000 of those who have died are children.

So, has H1N1 lived up to the scary advance billing that came roaring out of Mexico in the spring, or is it a variety of flu that was easy to catch, but didn’t really turn out to be virulent?

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: This pandemic was much more selectively hitting younger age populations and causing the kinds of illnesses we have not seen in my public health career.

RAY SUAREZ: And Osterholm says, when you consider the premature deaths among young flu sufferers, not only is the impact magnified:

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: It is very clear that this pandemic has been much, much more severe than any seasonal flu years that we have had in modern history, and actually begins to have impact similar to that that we saw with previous pandemics in 1957 and 1968.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Osterholm and Dr. Frieden are uncertain about a third wave of disease, and won’t rule it out. They strongly agree on prevention over a roll of the dice.

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Go get your vaccine.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: Get vaccinated against H1N1.

RAY SUAREZ: Hospitals coped. Schools managed. Vaccine producers pushed millions of new doses out the door. H1N1 is still out there. So is the seasonal flu. Both will still be a threat for months to come.