ATLANTA -- Retailers are limiting flu vaccines to customers who qualify as high-risk or priority patients under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, here, in the wake of an unexpected shortage announced earlier this month.
Following the closure of the British plant of vaccine manufacturer Chiron, Emeryville, Calif., the company said it would not be able to manufacture the 46 million doses it had promised the United States, according to statements from the CDC. This effectively cut the number of doses available in this country by almost half.
"Like everybody else, we were blindsided by the news ... that the Chiron plant had been shut down," said John Beckner, director of pharmacy and health services, Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va. "Our immediate response was that we wanted to make sure we were following CDC guidelines in trying to allocate what vaccine we do have to only high-risk individuals. That's been our focus."
Priority groups include all children ages 6 to 23 months, adults 65 or older, women who will be pregnant during the flu season, persons between the ages of 2 and 64 who have underlying chronic medical conditions, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, children between the ages of 6 and 18 months who are on chronic aspirin therapy, health care workers with direct patient care, out-of-home caregivers, and household contacts of children under 6 months, according to the CDC.
Aventis Pasteur, with U.S. headquarters in Swiftwater, Pa., is the other maker of the flu vaccine and manufactures close to 54 million doses for the United States, of which 30 million have already been distributed, according to the CDC.
Retailers that have received vaccine shipments find themselves playing an important role in managing public access to the vaccine this fall. Ukrop's decided to pool its vaccine supply and concentrate on providing shots in four centralized locations to simplify the process and ensure a safe environment for its customers, Beckner said. The lines in stores were "unbelievable," he said.
Publix, Lakeland, Fla.; Kroger, Cincinnati; Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa; Schnuck's, St. Louis; Farmer Jack, Detroit; Giant Foods, Landover, Md.; Costco, Issaquah, Wash.; Rite Aid, Camp Hill, Pa.; and Walgreens, Deerfield, Ill., were also among the retailers that said they would continue their flu vaccine clinics in compliance with CDC recommendations by limiting shots only to priority patients, according to company statements and media reports. Harris Teeter, Mathews, N.C.; Family Fare, a banner of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Spartan; and Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., canceled their clinics.
Schnucks saw lines of 400 people at times during eight clinics held the weekend following Chiron's announcement, said Lori Willis, spokeswoman for the chain.
"We're a combination food-and-drug store. To weave 400 people in and out of our aisles and lines was quite a challenge for our stores' teams," said Willis. Other chains have reported similar crowds, according to media reports from all over the United States.
Individuals were camped out waiting for the clinic hours in advance as though waiting to buy tickets for a concert, which contributed to the long wait times, Willis said. Wait times were so long -- despite extra nurses added to handle the increased volume -- store managers reported giving out water, cookies and chairs to waiting customers, she said. The chain was the only non-medical facility giving the flu shot to area patients, Willis said.
"Based on the response we saw the first weekend, we do have some concern about whether or not our supply will hold out. This is by far the greatest response we've ever seen," Willis told SN. The chain will continue to follow its clinic schedule as long as it has the vaccine, she said.
Dwaine Stevens, spokes-man for Publix, said he thinks the chain will have sufficient vaccine supplies.
"We're supporting our governmental and city agencies to help with the immediate need, but I believe we're going to be okay," he said. Health officials have been referring patients to Publix pharmacies, he added.
Hy-Vee won't be holding official flu clinics, said Ruth Mitchell, spokeswoman. The chain has advised all its stores with vaccine supplies to cancel the clinics and vaccinate only under the CDC guidelines.
"It doesn't look positive right now for our stores ever having any significant quantities of flu vaccine, enough to do general clinics for anybody that would want a flu shot. We're still waiting to see just how much vaccine we will be getting," Mitchell said. The majority of Hy-Vee's supply was going to come from Chiron.
For customers who don't qualify for the flu vaccine under CDC recommendations, retailers are offering FluMist, the inhaled live attenuated flu vaccine manufactured by MedImmune, Gaithersburg, Md. More than 1 million doses of FluMist will be available during flu season, according to the CDC. Prices of FluMist decreased this year from close to $60 to $30, Mitchell pointed out, and that combined with the shortage of the injected vaccine have led to increased interest in the alternative offering in Hy-Vee pharmacies.