The flu vaccine shortage took on increasing life as a campaign issue Wednesday as Sen. John Kerry's supporters and other Democrats pressed their charges that missteps by President Bush have exacerbated the problem.
Across the nation, from the Chicago area to battleground states such as Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, voters seemed split on whether the president was at fault, with Republicans generally defending Bush for a health crisis they insisted was not of his making.
Democratic voters and some analysts accused the president of paying too little attention to health care and missing warnings over the years by experts that the flu vaccine was too dependent on private industry. They argued that the vaccine should be made largely in this country and ought to be better regulated by the government.
Some voters, like Debra Clomax, 48, of Chicago, criticized both sides for politicizing the issue, talking too much about flu shots when they should be talking about more important issues.
`There are bigger issues'
"The main thing they need to worry about is jobs. The economy is bad. There are bigger issues," Clomax said.
The White House tried to fend off potential collateral damage from reports that Congress had ample amounts of the vaccine and that Capitol Hill officials actually had urged members, no matter how healthy, to get shots.
That advice seemed at odds with federal guidance that only the most at-risk from flu--the very young, seniors, and those with chronic illnesses--get the shots. But some lawmakers said they got shots before the crisis and others got them because they were going overseas.
Juxtaposed with images of senior citizens waiting in long lines for access to scarce flu vaccine, the political charges could fuel grass-roots anger that might affect the race.
"It's absolutely an issue that could be decisive in some swing states if the race remains very close," said Drew Altman, president and chief executive officer of the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, which studies Americans' views on health matters.
"Anything that adds to their anxiety about health could potentially have some impact at the margin in a very close race," added Altman.
Dr. Dorothy Jenkins, an internist in Delaware County outside Philadelphia, said she doubts the issue is political.
"People don't blame Bush," she said. "He could not have predicted the company would make an inadequate product."
But the Kerry campaign pressed its case that portrays the vaccine shortage as part of a series of Bush administration bungles that included Iraq and economic stewardship.
"It's a reminder, in what is arguably the wealthiest country in the world, that we have failed to provide the health coverage that makes protection from the flu available," said Mike McCurry, a senior adviser to Kerry and a former Clinton White House press secretary.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois also criticized the administration. "We are dealing with some of the most challenging public-health issues of the century ... [such as bioterrorism] and this administration didn't get it right when it came to the flu vaccine," he said.
The White House has rejected such criticisms and has sought to portray itself as proactive. "This administration took the lead to make sure that we were taking strong steps when it comes to flu preparedness," said press secretary Scott McClellan.
"That's why we stockpiled antiviral medicines for those who do get sick. That's why we increased funding from less than $40 million to, in the '05 budget, more than $280 million for flu preparedness," he said.
Reaction from Americans surveyed Wednesday indicated that neither campaign would gain much of an edge from the debate.
Joan Lewis, 41, of Chicago, said she thinks Bush made a mistake by not monitoring the flu vaccine situation more closely.
"He should have known," said Lewis, a Kerry supporter.
Lewis also said neither side has particularly shined when it comes to campaigning on the issue.
"They're manipulating the public," she said. "This is too serious to play cat and mouse with."
Killer 1918 epidemic recalled
In Chillicothe, a small city in south central Ohio, older citizens remember parents talking about the Majestic Theater being used as a morgue for victims of the 1918 flu epidemic.
Darrell Rhinehart, 69, a paper-company retiree in Chillicothe, said he didn't think Bush should be blamed.
Still, Rhinehart said, he's worried about not getting a shot because he has had one every year for a decade.
In Delray Beach, Fla., retiree Jerry Kanovsky, 69, said he already had decided for Kerry over Bush, but the flu shot shortage made him support Kerry more strongly.
"It certainly sealed the deal," said Kanovsky, who has a variety of ailments and thinks he could get deathly ill if he contracted the flu.
Some Democratic officials in the Sunshine State hope the vaccine issue could help the party woo back some Jewish voters inclined toward Bush because of his strong support of Israel's conservative government.
On the other hand, Rabbi Richard Yellin said it was cheap of Democrats to link the flu vaccine shortage with politics. "It's just negative partisan talk," he said. "They [Democrats] should instead be working with all of us to see that these people in need get the shots."
The reality that millions of people truly needing the vaccine won't be able to get shots due to the severe shortage prompted some members of Congress to come forward to say that they wouldn't be getting the shots available to them.
"I just don't feel comfortable elbowing out an elderly person when I'm healthy myself," Durbin said. "I should be at the back of the line, not the front of the line."
While not criticizing Congress directly, White House press secretary McClellan said that "the president believes that those who don't need the vaccine should not be getting them."
Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) urged his colleagues to quickly pass bipartisan legislation he has introduced in the Senate on their return to Congress after Election Day. His bill is meant to increase the amounts of flu vaccine that manufacturers produce in the future by guaranteeing that the government would buy any unsold vaccine and provide tax incentives for makers to expand production. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) has introduced a similar bill in the House.
The vaccine shortage resulted from manufacturing problems in the British-based plant of Chiron Corp., headquartered in California. Due to bacterial contamination, Britain's government banned distribution of vaccine that had been destined for the U.S., leaving America with 58 million available flu shots, about half what had been anticipated.
"This is a very important issue that goes beyond bickering by the candidates," said Dr. Robert Daum, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Chicago and a vaccine expert who serves on many Food and Drug Administration advisory committees.
"We depend on a system that relies on private companies, buoyed by market forces, to decide who's going to make a vaccine," he said. "Except for good will, there's no vaccine czar, no one in charge. ... We've analyzed this for years. This is not even a new problem for this administration."
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Several members of the Illinois congressional delegation received flu shots, according to a Tribune survey. Some got one before the shortage was announced, or because of a medical condition, or because of overseas travel.
Got shot: Fitzgerald, Crane, Schakowsky, Hastert, Evans, Shimkus.
Did not: Durbin, Rush, Jackson, Lipinski, Gutierrez, Emanuel, Kirk, Biggert, Manzullo, LaHood.
No answer: Hyde, Davis, Weller, Costello, Johnson.
National correspondent Frank James wrote this story in Washington with contributions from Sarah Frank in Washington, Tim Jones in OhioCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times