ATLANTA -- Last year's unexpected vaccine shortage is having repercussions on how supermarkets dole out flu shots, at least in the initial phase of their programs.
Retailers contacted by SN said they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here to limit flu shots to those at high risk until Oct. 24.
"We've been trying to tell everyone through advertising that we are prioritizing," said Martha Johnson, director of clinical services for Ahold USA, Braintree, Mass.
Last year, the British plant of vaccine manufacturer Chiron, Emeryville, Calif., was closed due to factory contamination and 46 million flu shots were lost. As a result, the CDC has recommended that the vaccine only be administered to those considered high risk until the cutoff date.
Ahold's chains are working with Maxim Health Systems, Columbia, Md., which will administer the vaccines and provide a screening sheet that will be used to determine eligibility. "All of the retailers running clinics want to avoid a situation like last year, so they are moving forward with the CDC's recommendation to screen," said Steve Wright, Maxim's national director of wellness services.
Because of their convenience, supermarkets and other retailers with pharmacies have become the first choice for many Americans seeking flu shots. When shortages occur, like last year, it then becomes a major public relations challenge for them, industry observers said.
Some of the supermarkets using Maxim's screening services include Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.; Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C.; Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.; Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.; Schnuck Markets, St. Louis; and Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., the health services provider reported.
Other supermarkets promoting the vaccinations include most major chains in the industry, such as Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.; and Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark. Drug chains like CVS Corp., Woonsocket, R.I., and Walgreens, Deerfield, Ill., also offer flu shots.
Schnuck Markets publicized its clinics with in-store promotions, such as posters that announced that high-risk patients would get priority until the cutoff date.
"We start our in-store ads about 10 days before the clinics open, rather than months in advance, because we always get more people than we can shake a stick at," said Curtis Hartin, director of pharmacy at Schnucks.
Priority groups include persons age 65 years or more, age 2 to 64 with underlying disease, residents of long-term care facilities, children age 2 months to 23 months, pregnant women, health personnel who provide direct patient care, and those caring for or residing in the same home as children less than 6 months old, according to the CDC.
In addition, the CDC recommends flu vaccines for individuals over 6 months old who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and are living in crowded group settings, unless the person has written documentation of already having received the vaccine.
"Nationwide, we are offering the flu vaccine to high-risk individuals through the cutoff date, and we have seven stores where we are offering vaccinations for pneumonia by appointment, and that will go without an appointment starting Nov. 1," Hartin said. "We also give a lot of other vaccines, like hepatitis A and B."
Some retailers are offering these additional vaccinations in response to positive feedback from past flu clinics, despite shortages and long lines, retailers told SN.
"Our store managers get excited, because the community is so appreciative of anything we can do for them," Johnson said. "Last year, we received thank-you notes and calls from customers and public health departments."
Price Chopper and Big Y are among the retailers that will be offering pneumonia as well as flu vaccines, while Publix will offer tetanus/diphtheria vaccinations as well as both flu and pneumonia vaccines, according to the companies.
Wild Oats Markets will host flu vaccination clinics with partner Professional Flu Clinics, Denver, that will include a more natural preservative-free flu vaccine for adults 18 and older.
"The majority of influenza vaccines distributed in the United States currently contain thimerosal as a preservative," said Kristi Estes, spokeswoman for Wild Oats. Some of Wild Oats' flu vaccines contain only trace amounts, less than 1.5 micrograms per dose, of thimerosal and are considered by the Food and Drug Administration to be "preservative-free."
"There is no convincing evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site," Estes said. However, in July 1999, the Public Health Service agencies, the American Academy of Pediatrics and vaccine manufacturers agreed that thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated in vaccines as a precautionary measure.
Today, all routinely recommended licensed pediatric vaccines that are currently being manufactured for the U.S. market, with the exception of influenza vaccine, contain no thimerosal or only trace amounts, according to Wild Oats.
For customers who do not wish to get a flu vaccination or just want to boost their immune systems for the cold and flu season, Wild Oats has an Immune Support Center open. It offers products that boost the immune system to help prevent customers from getting sick; products that alleviate flu symptoms if they do get the flu; and products that alleviate cold symptoms if they get a cold, Estes said.