Most of the flu clinics at California supermarkets and drugstores are expected to shut down in the next few days, leaving senior citizens and others at high risk of serious complications from the illness scrambling to find other ways to get vaccinated.
Federal officials, responding to the shortage of flu vaccine, announced Tuesday they had negotiated a deal to ship much of what is left of the medicine directly to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes that serve high-risk patients.
But Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, said there would not be enough for all of the more than 2 million seniors, pregnant women, young children and those with chronic health problems who are urged to be inoculated.
Fearing a shortage, people continued to swamp Southern California retailers still offering the shots Tuesday, lining up for up to five hours at some locations to get inoculated before the clinics closed.
Nearly 400 people converged on a Costco in Marina del Rey, with the line flowing out of the store into the parking lot area. Geri Horton, a 69-year-old manicurist, knew she had a long wait ahead of her and came prepared with a metal folding chair.
“I touch people’s hands all day long, and it’s important that I get a flu shot,” she said. “People are sick or coming down with something, and I don’t want to get sick and pass it on to others.”
Dozens of people -- some in wheelchairs and walkers -- queued up at a Sav-on drugstore in Santa Monica. Laura Sharp, an 82-year-old retired actress, said it took her several attempts to find a place that offered the drug.
“I went to three doctors, and they didn’t have the vaccine. They gave me a list of where I could go to get it,” she said. “I’ve always gotten [a shot]. I don’t want to take the chance of getting the flu.”
Eilene Dribin was the last of 175 people to receive the shot at the crowded pharmacy. But her husband was behind her in line.
“It’s not a very good feeling,” said Dribin, 71. “My husband didn’t get it.”
Maxim Health Systems, which administers flu clinics at Costco, Longs, Walgreens and other retailers, said the clinics would run out of vaccine by Saturday and didn’t know when more would be available.
The shortage comes after British regulators suspended the license of a pharmaceutical plant in Liverpool because of manufacturing problems and possible contamination. The plant, which makes the flu vaccine for Chiron Corp. of Emeryville, Calif., had expected to produce 46 million doses for the U.S. market.
Under a deal struck between the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Aventis Pasteur, the other major flu vaccine manufacturer, the company will ship 22.4 million doses of the drug to hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities so that they can be given to high-risk patients. Aventis hopes to have about half of those doses shipped within two months.
Fielding and other public health officials in Southern California said they had not worked out exactly how the remaining doses would be distributed and how patients would know where to go. But they said county health departments, which provide flu shots to those who cannot afford to pay, would receive some of the doses.
In Los Angeles County, 2.8 million residents fall into the high-risk category. Although only half of those people usually get shots each year, more people might seek it this year.
“Part of the problem is that the shortage has been raised to such a level of newsworthiness, more high-risk patients may come forward than in the past,” Fielding said. “There’s already a rush into places with the vaccine.”
Officials stressed that people still have time to get shots because the flu season generally doesn’t begin until December. It remains unclear how severe this year’s flu strain will be.
Health authorities are hoping that people not in the high-risk category will forgo their shots, leaving more for those in need.
“It’s not like this Saturday the vaccine ends,” Fielding said. “Don’t panic. Contact your doctor. More vaccine will become available for high-risk patients.”
Word of the planned resupply of the vaccine was welcomed by Joan Marker, an administrator at Angelus Plaza in downtown L.A., a home for 1,300 seniors, many of whom are uncertain about where to get a shot.
“The county has already canceled a flu clinic we have every year,” Marker said. “Some of the seniors are getting the shots outside, and some are not. We would be more than happy to receive some of that vaccine and host a flu clinic here.”
Ronald Bangasser, a San Bernardino County physician, said people are likely to be puzzled about where to go for shots after this weekend.
“The good news is, we still have time,” said Bangasser, who also heads the California Adult Immunization Coalition. “That’s why people shouldn’t panic. Flu season doesn’t start until the first part of the year.”
Bangasser echoed Fielding’s suggestions that healthy people wash their hands often, not rub their eyes, ears or mouth with their hands and remain home if they’re sick. If they do contract the flu, they can opt for alternative treatment such as antiviral medications and the nasal inhalant FluMist.
In the meantime, health officials say, they are working overtime trying to get what remains of the vaccine to those who need it most.
“We’re not quite sure how it’s going to work out. We’re having a lot of meetings and conference calls” with the CDC, said Robert Miller, spokesman for the California Department of Health Services.
Those seeking shots at some retailers this week have been asked to offer proof that they need the vaccine. Bob Lucas, a 59-year-old Venice resident, had two coronary bypass surgeries and arrived at the Marina del Rey Costco Tuesday with a list of a dozen medications he was taking in case he was asked to prove he was eligible for the flu vaccine.
“I’ve got no choice” but to come here, he said. “I called my doctor, and he said he couldn’t get any vaccine. He said to go to Albertsons or Costco, someplace like that. You just have to call around.”