The Times West Virginian

October 14, 2013

MCHD flu vaccination program is going strong

In spite of reports that federal shutdown has halted CDC’s surveillance of illnesses

By Mary Wade Burnside
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — The Marion County Health Department’s flu vaccination is going strong in spite of reports that the federal shutdown has halted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveillance of influenza and other illnesses.

In fact, said Donna Riffle, the health department’s director of nursing, she has been so busy that she just got around to scheduling two additional vaccine clinics for later this week.

In addition to the regular 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday clinic, the health department also will be open for people who want flu vaccinations from 9 to 11 a.m. Thursday and Friday.

“We just wanted to give more people an option to come in, and that’s the first time we’ve been able to do that,” she said. “The schedule has just been so packed.”

The Marion County Health Department initially received about 500 doses of flu vaccine near the end of August and began administering doses in September, Riffle said. She estimated that about 250 doses remain.

“If we need to order more, we can,” she added.

About 70 percent of CDC staff nationally was furloughed when the federal government shut down Oct. 1 because the congressional showdown over the budget bill. The CDC’s website (www.cdc.gov) features a message on a red backdrop on the agency’s home page stating that information might not be up-to-date because of the federal shutdown.

However, said Jeff Neccuzi of the Division of Immunization Services for the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, which sends out vaccines to county health departments and other state-run facilities, the shutdown does not affect vaccine distribution.

“Our vaccine is actually stored by a third-party distributor in Tennessee in a big warehouse,” he said. “The eastern half of the country uses this distributor to ship to providers and states. Funding to purchase these vaccines is made annually, so it’s not in jeopardy.”

The state Bureau for Public Health has been affected by the shutdown in that one federal employee, a public health advisor, has been furloughed, Neccuzi said. A few other federal employees in the office have not been furloughed.

The furloughed employee’s job is to help get grant approval and make sure the office follows CDC guidelines.

So far, the employee’s absence has not been a problem, Neccuzi added.

“It’s still early. If this would drag on considerably, it would hurt us.”

Theoretically, if the shutdown were to go on into the new year, Neccuzi said, vaccine distribution might be affected.

By then, many members of the public who plan to get a flu shot already have done so, although in the past few years, health officials have emphasized that the winter months are not too late to get a vaccine. Ad campaigns have been developed to try to convince them that getting a flu vaccine in January or February still can be effective.

“We’ve been raising awareness about that, and things have improved,” Neccuzi said. “We’ve been using more vaccine in January and February since we started promoting vaccinations through the winter months.”

However, “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It is best to get vaccinated in the fall. We don’t want to encourage people to wait. We don’t talk about this until we get into December and January, and then we prepare a template for health departments to remind their public that it’s still available and where the public can get the flu vaccine.”

Usually in West Virginia, the flu season does not peak until February or sometimes even March, Neccuzi said, which means a flu vaccine in January or even early February still can be helpful.

Last year, however, the flu season peaked around the end of December and early January, making an earlier vaccine a good idea.

The rate of people coming to the Marion County Health Department for vaccines this year has been brisker than last season, Riffle added.

She attributed the fact that the health department now can bill Highmark, Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Health Plan and the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) in addition to Medicare as one possible factor in the increase in people seeking flu vaccines.

That coincides with the health department officials’ plans to expand services as the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Affordable Care Act of 2014 goes into affect, with an enrollment period for people to sign up for insurance that began on the same day as the shutdown.

Lloyd White, administrator at the health department, had hoped to win a grant that would allow him to hire employees to help people sign up for health insurance, but that did not happen, he said.

“I am still waiting on a schedule of trainings to be able to do it in the future,” he said.

If insurance or Medicare cannot be billed, the charge for the vaccine is $25, although vaccinations are free to children ages 18 and younger.

Also, in the past, most flu vaccines have been trivalent, meaning it provides protection against three strains — two A strains and a B strain — of the flu. But this year, in addition to the trivalent, a quadrivalent vaccine providing protection against four strains also is available.

For the most part, the health department officials just have been administering whichever dose they happen to be using at the time, but if someone requests a specific type, “then that’s what they can have,” Riffle said.

Email Mary Wade Burnside at mwburnside@timeswv.com.