Oct. 9, 2009 -- For the past month and a half, Dr. Clifford Bassett has spent countless hours on the phone, trying to find enough seasonal flu vaccine for his patients.
He has been unsuccessful.
"Every time I call [the supplier], I can't get an answer," said Bassett, director of Allergy & Asthma Care of New York. "They say, 'Wait until September.' September comes around, and they say, 'Wait until October.'
Dr. Ulder Tillman, health officer for Montgomery County, Md., reported similar problems.
"The full-demand needs of mass flu clinics across the country were not fully anticipated," he said. "Several school-based vaccination clinics had to be canceled for lack of vaccine; community health centers ... have not been able to vaccinate their patients, [and] some private providers [say] they, too, are out of vaccine."
Bassett and Tillman are just two of a number of medical professionals across the country who suspect that the energy invested in getting out the H1N1 vaccine is pushing production and delivery of the seasonal flu vaccines to the wayside.
Bassett said he has called several colleagues in New York City to see if anyone else was having this problem and found that, while some pharmacies have the flu shot in stock, "doctors can't get supply at their offices. … I don't think there's ever been an issue before where we couldn't get enough seasonal flu vaccine."
Meanwhile, medical professionals in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Vermont, Montana, North Dakota, New Jersey and New York said they are getting only a fraction of the seasonal flu vaccine they ordered, according to ABC News and The Associated Press.
In all of these states, the story seems to be the same: Manufacturers are cancelling or delaying shipments, and many states will run out of flu shots until new shipments come in mid to late November. Consequently, many are having to cancel seasonal flu clinics and ration seasonal vaccine by need.
Bassett said he has heard of at least one doctor taking unusual measures to obtain doses of the vaccine.
"A colleague of mine needed flu vaccine and literally had to pay almost three times the usual cost to obtain some from an unscrupulous vendor," he said.
Swine Flu Vaccine Concerns Edge Out Seasonal Supply
Although most providers expect to receive enough seasonal flu vaccine by November, the current shortage is causing some concern.
Seasonal flu, generally speaking, is a much more serious illness than most people appreciate. Even a typical flu season results in 36,000 U.S> deaths each year, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Iowa, the Polk County Health Department has had to cancel all 31 of its community flu and pneumonia clinics for the month of October because of the lack of vaccine. With 1,000 flu shots remaining, Health Department Director Terri Henkels said, the shipment for more vaccine has been delayed until early- or mid-November.
In Minneapolis, walk-in flu clinics for seasonal flu vaccine have been cancelled until Oct. 21, and, in St. Louis, Barnes-Jewish Hospital has cancelled three dates for free seasonal flu shots because of a shortage of flu shots and "higher-than-expected" demand.
Although he admitted that there are seasonal flu vaccine shortages throughout the city of Madison, Steven Van Dinter, spokesman for SSM Health Care of Wisconsin, is less concerned. "Typically we don't do seasonal flu vaccination clinics in September, so there's some time to play with. … There will be plenty for people eventually. It's just right now there's a shortage."
In Montana, health officials are putting forth a similar message, saying that while shipping delays have created a shortage of seasonal flu vaccine in the state, citizens and providers should not be concerned as back orders of flu shots will arrive well before flu season kicks into high gear in December.
Flu Shots May Be Too Late for Some
But while most states are reporting that H1N1 is the predominant flu circulating, Bassett warned that "by the time we get the supply [of seasonal flu shots], it might be too little too late. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to work, and they are asking people to wait two week between the seasonal flu shot and getting the swine flu vaccine.
"I have a lot of patients at high risk, pregnant women, people with asthma or heart disease … that need to be protected now."