A dwindling supply of flu vaccine this year could mean that not everyone who wants a flu shot will get one, health officials report.
Two of the four licensed U.S. manufacturers producing this year’s influenza vaccine have run out of vaccine, and the other two companies report a limited supply in stock.
In California, some county health departments, clinics and individual physicians have depleted their supplies and will probably be unable to obtain more from the manufacturers, said Dr. Loring Dales, chief of immunization for the state Department of Health Services.
“When you’re out, you’re out,” said Sandy Ross, immunization project coordinator for the Department of Health Services in San Diego County.
Ross said clinics in the San Diego area began running short of the vaccine earlier this week.
“We’re not completely out yet, but what we’re telling the community is, it’s one day at a time,” she said.
Ross said the vaccine will be available today, but in very limited supply, at clinics in El Cajon and Pacific Beach. She said the vaccine is in short supply in San Diego County because of the “overwhelming response” from the public in asking for flu shots.
“This is a potential we face every year,” she said, “but this year, we started running out much sooner than anticipated.”
Los Angeles County Health Department officials, however, report that they still have flu vaccine available.
“We have plenty of vaccine,” said Chuck Alexander, who directs distribution of the county’s vaccine. “We have to be somewhat conservative with it, but we’ve been giving it out to whoever wants it.”
Dales said about 20% of county health departments in the state have run out of the vaccine, which immunizes against three strains of influenza: A Shanghai, A Taiwan and B Yamagata.
Officials in Orange County report that they have enough vaccine to hold public immunization clinics within the next few days, but supplies are not expected to hold out much beyond that time.
In Riverside County, health officials report that demand for vaccine has increased from 16,000 doses provided last year to 21,000 doses so far this year. Riverside officials this week borrowed 1,000 doses of vaccine from the San Bernardino Health Department, which has not experienced a shortage.
“We’ve certainly had a bigger response to our flu clinics this year than we anticipated,” said epidemiologist Randy Regester of the Riverside County Health Department. “It hasn’t been critical, but we have had to borrow some doses in order to complete this season’s immunization program.”
In Ventura County, more people have sought flu shots this year than ever before from the Department of Public Health, but supplies have been ample to meet demand, said Sue Hyatt, public health nurse.
The department administered 12,500 shots at 18 clinics held around the county, she said. Public Health also distributed vaccines to many of the county’s nursing homes.
Hyatt said Thursday that the department has about 150 doses remaining, which it will continue to offer at its regular public health clinics until the supplies run out.
Because leftover flu vaccine cannot be saved and used the following year, manufacturers are faced with the difficult task each year of guessing how much vaccine will be needed, Dales said.
“They try to gauge how much to make,” he said. “Some years they make too much. Some years they make too little. This is one of the years where they didn’t make enough, but they came close.”
The manufacture, packaging and shipping of large quantities of flu vaccine takes several months, according to the vaccine makers. By the time the existing supplies could be supplemented, the current flu season would be well under way.
Flu vaccine is designed each year to protect against particular strains and should be administered in November and December to be most effective, Dales said. It takes two to three weeks for the vaccine to produce immunity. Influenza, which is spread by droplets coughed or sneezed into the air, usually hits full force in December, spurred by holiday travel.
The vaccine is recommended for people who might suffer serious consequences if stricken with flu. Health-care workers are also encouraged to be immunized to halt the spread of illness among their patients.
Flu causes fever, headache, muscle ache and fatigue but can lead to additional complications among the elderly and individuals with immune-system disorders. About 20,000 Americans die each year from influenza.
Health clinics and physicians place their orders for vaccine early in the year and must estimate how much they’ll need.
The county attempts to order enough vaccine to meet the needs of individuals who are at particular risk for serious complications from the flu and may be unable to afford a shot from a private physician, Alexander said. A shot costs about $15 to $30 from a private practitioner, clinic or hospital.
Individual physicians may still have plenty of vaccine available. According to a spokesman for one manufacturer, Connaught Labs Inc., vaccine supplies sold to public health departments are usually depleted quickly while supplies in private physicians’ offices and clinics dwindle gradually.
Supply “would vary from physician to physician,” Dales said. “But if (private doctors) have run out, it would be difficult to get any more.”
Beginning next week, state officials will transfer supplies of flu vaccine from counties with an excess to those experiencing a shortage.
“Some counties have scheduled (immunization) clinics and have had to close them,” Dales said. “We hope next week to gather up vaccine from some clinics that came out ahead and shift the vaccine to the other counties so they can hold makeup clinics.”
Times staff writers Jenifer Warren, Michael Granberry and Joanna Miller contributed to this story