Group Health delays flu shots

By SHARON SALYER

Herald Writer

If you’re a Group Health member and got a flu shot this week, consider yourself lucky.

The co-op has canceled its flu-shot clinics through the end of November because expected flu vaccine shipments didn’t arrive.

"This is the first time we’ve had to cancel flu clinics," Group Health spokeswoman Terri Campbell said. "Even when there was a delay in the past, we’ve been able to squeak by."

Group Health-sponsored flu shot clinics for the public, such as a Nov. 28 event at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Marysville, also have been canceled.

The action is an abrupt turnaround from earlier this week, when Group Health officials said they had enough vaccine for all members who wanted shots.

It follows announcements by other health care organizations in Snohomish County, such as The Everett Clinic, which said Monday it was rationing available supplies to those most at-risk for serious health complications from the flu, such as anyone older than 65 or with health conditions such as diabetes or heart problems.

The Everett Clinic is honoring all appointments for patients who already have appointments for the shots.

Group Health’s policy change was caused by supply problems and higher-than-usual demand. The cooperative ordered 105,000 doses of flu vaccine, but only 10,000 arrived, Campbell said.

It purchased 20,000 doses on the secondary market, paying the premium price of $13 a dose instead of $2 a dose.

Group Health was able to negotiate a special rate for its initial order in the spring. But the shortage has boosted prices.

"It’s supply and demand," Campbell said, "kind of like Tickle Me Elmo gets more expensive the day before Christmas."

So Group Health began the week with 30,000 doses. But publicity about a national flu vaccine shortage led to record turnouts at several Group Health locations. About 1,300 people lined up to get their shot Monday at the co-op’s Everett Medical Center, several hundred more people than usual.

Group Health’s Lynnwood office had large crowds as well, with 1,150 people getting vaccinated Monday and 918 on Tuesday, said Pam Selnes, area director.

With few doses remaining, the health care cooperative, which has 40,000 patients in Snohomish County, canceled the remaining dates the shots would be available to members this month.

Referring to the premium price the organization paid for an additional 20,000 doses of vaccine, Campbell said: "We’d be happy to get the vaccine at any price. Now it’s not available at all."

Group Health is still rescheduling flu-shot clinics. In Everett, the shots will be available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Dec. 4 and 5.

Group Health orders directly from the manufacturer, Wyeth Lederle Vaccines. But with those shipments delayed, they have purchased smaller shipments from distributors.

A Wyeth statement sent to Group Health dated Nov. 15 says the company expects to ship 54 percent of its orders by the end of November and the remaining orders by the end of December.

The A/Panama strain of the vaccine "has been a particularly difficult strain to produce and has resulted in lower than normal yields," the statement says.

Group Health still has outstanding orders for about 75,000 doses. Schedules called for 12,000 doses to arrive each week.

"That didn’t happen this week," Campbell said. "Whether that means 24,000 next week or the 12,000 they thought, we don’t know. We’re at their mercy.

"Our supplier has said for sure we will get all our vaccine," she added.

Group Health is telling its members not to worry.

"It isn’t a shortage, it’s a delay," she said. "We’ll have plenty of vaccine in time to get all interested members vaccinated in time to prevent the flu."

But with the bug typically beginning to circulate in Washington in late December, and the shot taking about two weeks to become effective, the timing is beginning to tighten.

"We’re hoping this is going to work," Campbell said of the approaching flu season. "We’ll get everybody vaccinated in early December, and we’ll be ready."

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