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Flu-shot eligibility to widen
State urges health sites to ease restrictions

Thursday, December 30, 2004
Chicago Tribune
by John Chase

Beginning next week, many local and county health departments across Illinois will begin dispensing flu shots to people age 50 and over, and to people caring for senior citizens and the critically ill, moves that fall in line with recent recommendations made by federal health officials.

State health officials urged the public health departments on Wednesday to lower eligibility requirements for the inoculations, citing a recent policy change by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gov. Rod Blagojevich also said his director of public health has warned that a flu outbreak could be severe this year and wants as many people as possible to receive inoculations.

"As we get further into flu season we have a large number of individuals who have not been vaccinated getting in contact with other people," Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said. "The virus can be spread quickly this year because there's so many more people who haven't been protected against it ... We want to get more people the vaccine before the peak of the flu season and reduce the impact of a potential outbreak."

The guidelines are being relaxed as the nation faces an overall vaccine shortage.

But government rationing efforts and other factors, including benevolence by some people in those "high-risk" categories--senior citizens, infants, pregnant women and the critically ill--who chose not to get the shots to save enough for those truly in need, have left more vaccine available than anticipated.

Officials with the CDC feared a few weeks ago that the vaccine might go to waste if the guidelines restricting shots only to people in high-risk categories were kept in place. The CDC's suggested changes will take effect Monday.

The changes nearly double the number of Illinois residents eligible for inoculations, to 8.3 million from 4.2 million.

Still, local, state and federal officials hope the relaxed rules entice many in the high-risk categories to get shots because they remain the most in need. CDC officials said Wednesday that rough estimates show that this year fewer than 30 percent of the 4.2 million Illinois residents in high-risk categories have been vaccinated, though state officials warn that those numbers are preliminary.

The recommendation by the state is just that, a recommendation, and local and county health departments are not required to abide by it. In fact, Cook County's Health Department, which serves the county's suburbs, said it plans to continue restricting the shots to people in high-risk categories because the county has only about 1,000 doses left.

"Sometime after the first of the year, we'll take a look at our supply and decide whether to lower the guidelines," said Kitty Loewy, a department spokeswoman. "With not a lot left, we want to make sure those who really need it have it available to them."

But the City of Chicago, which has about 10,000 doses left, and other collar counties plan to follow the new guidelines. The city Health Department has a clinic scheduled for Jan. 8 at McKinley Park on the South Side.

The state has received 1.7 million doses of vaccine and estimates another 200,000 or 300,000 shots will be made available before the end of the flu season, said state Health Department spokeswoman Tammy Leonard. Federal officials recently approved buying another 4 million shots from Germany, which will be doled out across the nation.

Although the state seems to have enough flu shots for now, Blagojevich and some other states and municipalities continue to try to purchase roughly 700,000 shots from Europe. The Food and Drug Administration so far has not approved that purchase.

Because the flu season typically peaks after the holidays, time is running short for the inoculations to have an impact, but Ottenhoff said the governor's office still hopes the FDA will approve the purchases. If the purchases are not approved, the state will try to resell the vaccine or be liable for its portion, which is 250,000 shots that cost about $2.5 million.

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