Temperatures still hover around 100 degrees and you haven’t even put the pool toys away, but health care workers already are gearing up for the flu and urging seniors and others at risk to protect themselves now.
Across the country, more flu vaccine will be available this season than ever — more than 100 million doses are in production, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a welcome contrast to the past two years when shortages panicked patients and sent nurses and doctors scrambling to inoculate the most vulnerable.
Early inoculation also could ease overcrowding in hospital emergency rooms, part of a three-point education plan that state and county health officials will roll out this winter in hope of preventing the crushing load that buried East Valley hospitals last winter.
Much of the state’s vaccine supply will start arriving this month, and flu shots are available at many area clinics. The CDC and local public health officials urge seniors and others at risk to be vaccinated early, before the flu season takes hold and lines start forming.
It’s impossible to predict when the first flu case will hit or how severe the season will be. Since vaccine producers typically send shipments at a fairly steady clip from now through January, there’s also no telling how much will be available when demand peaks.
So even with 100 million doses, those who procrastinate until everyone else is sick could find themselves waiting for a flu shot, particularly if the flu hits early as it did last year.
“In all likelihood, there will be plenty of vaccine,” said Will Humble, deputy assistant director for the state Department of Health Services. “But there will be an appearance of a shortage at some point.”
Dr. Martin Blume is offering walk-in flu shots on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays this month at Parkway Medical Family and Urgent Care in Scottsdale, and at several Scottsdale pharmacies. Blume said he ordered 24,000 doses from three distributors this year, but can never be sure how much will show up. Last year he received almost 5,000 doses less than the 12,000 he ordered, and ran out.
“This year, they say there’s going to be enough,” he said. “But after all these years, I still don’t understand why they can’t plan ahead.”
It’s the same story at Maricopa County’s office of community health nursing, where program manager Machrina Leach ordered about 8,000 doses to vaccinate the county’s low-income children. The county runs five sites through the federal Vaccinations for Children program, including the Mesa Immunization Clinic at 423 N. Country Club Drive.
“Sometimes, we really don’t know until the delivery date,” Leach said. “We don’t get everything at once. And we don’t always know when it’s going to show up.”
That can be a challenge, particularly with small children who need two doses over a four-week period.
This year the CDC has added older children, up to age 5, to the high-risk category. Other vulnerable groups include people over 50, health care providers and those with chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
County and state health leaders are putting pressure particularly on doctors, nurses and other health care workers to be immunized. Nationally, only about onethird of them get their flu shots, even though they may spend much of their days around sick people.
“We want people to ask their health care provider if they’ve had their flu shot,” said Jeanene Fowler, a spokeswoman for the county’s public health office. “And if anyone you love is in any way compromised, you should be getting the flu shot to protect them.”
Later this fall, watch for public service announcements and other media messages about how to protect yourself from the flu and stop the spread of germs — basic hygiene lessons such as covering your mouth when you cough, washing your hands and staying home when you’re sick. Businesses and schools will be barraged with information to spread among employees and students.
Finally, once the flu season really kicks in and every other person you know is sick, public health officials will be talking about when to steer clear of emergency rooms. In addition to severely ill patients and those without health insurance, ERs are crowded each year with the so-called “worried well.”
“The goal is trying to educate the public about what the appropriate place to seek care is,” Humble said. “If you’re clogging up the emergency department, you’re breaking your social contract with everybody else, because you’re seeking emergency care for something you don’t need to.”
That’s a hard sell, Humble acknowledged, which will take many years to get through. For some, it never will.
“Some people are just going to have to experience it for themselves,” he said. “To wait in line for six hours to see a doctor and be told to go home and take Tylenol.”
East Valley hospitals last winter were reporting 10-hour to 12-hour waits during the flu’s peak in late December and early January.
Up to 20 percent of the country gets the flu each year, according to the CDC. About 36,000 people die and more than 200,000 are hospitalized because of complications like pneumonia. Nearly 5,200 flu cases were confirmed by the state lab last season, and two Arizona children died from the flu.