High-dose flu vaccine in limited supply in Georgia

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Some health care providers across Georgia and the rest of the country already are running low on the high-dose flu vaccine recommended for older Americans as many in the public heed warnings about the dangers of contracting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

Public health officials have said it’s more important than ever to get the flu shot this year, with the pandemic still raging, because contracting both viruses could pose a grave risk to a person’s health. Also, officials worry that a “twindemc” could overwhelm the health care system.

Many have listened to those warnings, causing supplies of the high-dose flu vaccine to dwindle. For right now, that’s more of an inconvenience than crisis.

On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “In some places, robust demand for vaccine and supplies required to support flu vaccination efforts, like needles or syringes, may mean that some providers run out of vaccine or other supplies before their next shipment has arrived. ... As supplies become available in increasing numbers, supply is expected to catch up with demand.”

Seth Leibler, who lives in Tucker, wanted to avoid the doctor’s office, pharmacies and other inside places because of the pandemic, but found the high-dose vaccine at a drive-through clinic outside the North DeKalb Health Center in Chamblee on Tuesday morning.

“This is absolutely wonderful,” he said as he rolled down his car window.

Not everyone has been so lucky.

Georgia Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said supply is “spotty” across the state. The North Georgia Health District in Dalton is out and waiting for a shipment this week, she said. Gwinnett and Cobb County health departments both have “extremely limited supplies,” but are expecting shipments over the coming days

Meanwhile, the DeKalb County Health Department, which is running three daily drive-through clinics in the county this flu season, appears well-stocked. Spokesman Eric Nickens said they are not anticipating any shortages and have 1,000 additional doses at a pharmaceutical storage facility.

Like other flu vaccines, the high-dose flu vaccine is made up of the three virus strains most likely to be circulating in the coming months. The high-dose vaccines, however, contain four times as much flu virus antigen — the part of the vaccine that stimulates the immune system — as standard flu vaccines.

That’s designed to give older people a higher immune system response against the flu. Older adults tend to have weaker immune systems, which can lead them to be less protected after a regular flu vaccine.

Health care providers order vaccines several months in advance, sometimes as early as January. In some cases, demand for vaccines has been greater than health care workers prepared for.

It’s not just seniors getting their flu vaccines in large numbers this season. CVS said it has already administered 9 million flu vaccines around the country this season – equal to the total number the pharmacy chain administered last flu season.

Spokesperson Matthew Blanchette said CVS pharmacy has ample supplies of both standard and high-dose vaccines and are prepared to administer 18 million flu vaccines this season.

He said if a local store “temporarily runs low on its supply due to high demand in the area, it will be replenished as quickly as possible.”

Nydam said the state typically orders between 400,000 and 500,000 flu vaccines and distributes them to district health departments. DPH ordered about 200,000 more this year in anticipation of higher demand. It still may not be enough.

Sanofi Pasteur, a leading influenza vaccine producer, said the company increased production by more than 15% and is supplying approximately 80 million doses of the flu vaccine. “This is the most influenza vaccine we have ever produced in the U.S.,” spokesman Michael Szumera said in an email.

He also urged people to call ahead to health care providers. If one location is out, he said, another one nearby might have it.

But some health care providers already know they won’t have enough to last the season and maybe not even the month of October. That’s because providers place their orders early and are generally unable to order more flu vaccines throughout a season.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Dr. Andrew Reisman, a Gainesville doctor and president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said his practice, which includes five doctors, is out of the high-dose vaccine. His practice expects another shipment of about 50 doses during the coming days. “And once we get it, it will be gone within hours,” he said. And once that shipment is gone, that’s it for the season

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The bottom line: people may have to call around to find it. But experts stress a standard vaccine is still better than no vaccine at all.

Currently, flu activity in Georgia is “minimal,” according to the latest report from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Only 2% of patient visits to doctors were for the flu during the week ending Oct 10.

It’s possible the U.S. will have a mild flu season. In the Southern Hemisphere, which experts often analyze in order to predict what kind of flu season this country will have, the severity of the season was mitigated by mask use and social distancing because of COVID-19.

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Meanwhile, back at the North DeKalb flu vaccine drive-through, a steady stream of people showed up to get a flu shot outside.

Patti Dawson, of Hapeville, came with her granddaughter, Haley Roth, who is 18.

“This was the only drive-through one I could find,” said Dawson, who is 64 and got the standard flu shot. “I always get a flu shot, and I tell everyone I know to get a flu shot. And, this year, it’s more important than ever.”