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Flu Season to Come Earlier, Stronger than Expected

October 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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The flu season might start earlier than expected, complicating efforts to distribute an H1N1 vaccine before people are infected. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: the early arrival of the flu season and the efforts to get a vaccine out quickly.

Betty Ann Bowser reports for our Health Unit, a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After months of anxious anticipation, the campaign to inoculate millions of Americans against the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, finally got under way this week.

The first shipments of vaccine trickled into some hospitals and health care facilities across the country. The vaccine comes in two forms: a nasal mist, which can be used to protect most healthy people ages 2 to 49, and a shot, which becomes available next week for many around the country.

Either way, children under 10 require two doses. The nation’s top health officials admit the rollout and the distribution of the vaccine has been a bit uneven.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN, director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: We haven’t seen a flu season like this in 50 years.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Tom Frieden is the director of the Centers for Disease Control.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: It’s coming available in lots, and states learn each day of additional vaccine available to them. It’s a little bit of a messy process. And we do expect it to be somewhat bumpy in the first few weeks. By the middle of this month, within the next two to three weeks, we’re going to have tens of millions of doses available.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While the CDC says 2.2 million doses of a mist version are available so far, its still hard to find, and demand is outstripping supply.

WOMAN: We haven’t received our supply of swine flu vaccine yet. We do expect it shortly

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While government officials said the vaccine would ship some time this month, the phones are ringing off the hook in doctors’ offices nationwide, because there is still a lot of confusion about when and where it will arrive.

WOMAN: For the H1N1, it’s — it’s possible, if you can call back maybe in a week or two, we will be able to schedule that appointment.

DR. DAN LEVY, Child & Teen Wellness Center: Did mom take your temperature?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Dan Levy is a pediatrician in suburban Baltimore.

DR. DAN LEVY: It’s been incredibly frustrating. I believe very strongly in immunizing children to everything we can. We’re expecting to get our — our initial supply, and which will be about 600 doses for an 8,000-patient practice, in about two weeks.

Overwhelming cases of flu this year

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like many physicians nationwide, Dr. Levy's office is packed with sick kids, who come down with symptoms at a time of year when doctors don't normally see so much flu, albeit many of the cases are mild. But, this year, the virus hit earlier in many parts of the country.

DR. DAN LEVY: It's been chaos. We're seeing large numbers of children with flu in our practice. And, for example, we have a four-provider practice. There are four of us here at any one time. Individually, in the last two days, I saw almost 80 visits. And that's probably a 40 percent increase over what I would normally see at this time of this year.

Probably most of true influenza that we're seeing right now is H1N1.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That's the case almost everywhere. The CDC estimates that swine flu has killed more than 600 people in the U.S. and hospitalized more than 9,000 since the virus first surfaced in April.

The CDC has identified five key priority groups to be vaccinated: pregnant women, health care workers, caregivers for infants under the age of six months old, and everyone from six months to 24 years of age.

It is also recommended for people between the ages of 25 and 64 with underlying medical conditions. Still, surveys and polls suggest many parents are wary. A new Associated Press poll released yesterday found that just 37 percent plan to give permission for their children to get the swine flu vaccine at school.

Jessica Sorensen brought her 3-year-old son, Logan, into Dr. Levy's practice for a seasonal flu vaccine, but she was on the fence about swine flu.

JESSICA SORENSEN: The H1N1? I don't know. I don't know about that one. I don't know if I am going to do it or not. I hear that there's some intense side effects. And then I hear there aren't any. So, I am really just up in the air about that one. I mean, I would feel guilty if I didn't do it and then he became sick, and something fatal were to happen. I am confused. I am confused as to -- as to whether or not we should -- should have it or not.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Frieden says the H1N1 vaccine is safe, that side effects are mild and no different from seasonal flu shots.

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: With production of this strain, we have cut no corners. This flu vaccine is made as flu vaccine is made each year, by the same companies, in the same production facilities, with the same procedures, with the same safety safeguards.

We have had literally hundreds of millions of people vaccinated against flu with flu vaccine made in this way. That enables us to have a high degree of confidence in the safety of the vaccine. It has an excellent safety record.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And flu cases are on the rise in many hospitals. At the Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie, Maryland, the emergency room is seeing about 40 flu cases a day.

DR. NEEL VIBHAKAR, Baltimore Washington Medical Center: Almost anyone can really get sick with the flu. We are seeing young kids who we're most worried about, as well as older folks.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. Neel Vibhakar runs the emergency room.

Flu cases on the rise

DR. NEEL VIBHAKAR: Overall, our emergency department has seen a big rise in volume over the past year. It's somewhere along the lines of 6 to 10 percent. Recently, over the past few weeks, we have seen a lot more in the way of flu-like symptoms. Just in the past six days, we have seen over 230 patients with flu-like symptoms, which is a tremendous rise from last year.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, health care workers here started getting the swine flu mist on Wednesday.

Carol Ann Sperry heads Baltimore Washington Medical Center's emergency preparedness team. She's been running her staff through drills for months.

CAROL ANN SPERRY: If I didn't say I was worried, I would be not telling you the truth. I do feel confident that our plans are going to work and I feel confident in our staff's ability to adapt. But the bottom line here is, we're going to have to adapt to changes moment by moment as this event unfolds. None of us can predict the future, and none of us have ever been through anything like this in our professional careers.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: While Sperry is confident her staff is prepared, almost 90 percent of emergency room doctors say they are concerned about their department's ability to handle the expected influx of H1N1 patients.

That's according to a new survey done by the American College of Emergency Physicians. At a time when cases are increasing, health officials say they're worried about some people, like Jason Strickland, who refuses to get vaccinated.

JASON STRICKLAND, patient: It's another flu. I mean, yes, it's good to be concerned and take care of things and wash your hands and do all the other things, but, if I'm going to get -- if I'm going to get it, I'm going to get it, you know?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The CDC says, so far, the H1N1 virus has shown no signs of mutation, which means the vaccine being distributed is an excellent match. And, officials say, given all the unknowns about H1N1, the vaccine remains the best weapon against the virus.

JIM LEHRER: There's more about the true costs of the H1N1 flu, for vaccines and for lost productivity in the workplace, on our Web site newshour.pbs.org.