H1N1 vaccines shortage still persists

While Tech students wait for news regarding the arrival of the H1N1 flu vaccine, those in charge of bringing the vaccine to campus are doing the same. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) initially estimated that vaccines would be readily available around the U.S. by the end of October. However, as of Thursday morning Nov. 5, the Stamps Health Services Center had still not received a shipment of the vaccines. It is still not known when the Health Center will receive the vaccines.

The journey to Tech begins with the federal government allocating vaccine shipments to state governments, who then redistribute the shipments to local governments. Then, the local governments dole out their allotted vaccines to medical service providers within their districts. The Fulton County Health Department (FCHD) is the last stop for a vaccine before arriving at Tech.

Tech’s Health and Services Department (HSD) and their Department of Emergency Preparedness (DEP) have been collaborating in all aspects concerning the H1N1 virus on campus. Both departments have been in regular contact with the FCHD to inquire about the vaccines.

“I was in contact with them as recently as last Friday continuing to ask the question ‘When are we getting it?’” said Jonathan Baker, Director of Health Services, “They are cautious and conservative in their communication with us and it’s sort of a ‘when we know, you’ll know situation.’”

The largest obstacle to receiving the vaccine is the national deficit, which is largely attributed to its antiquated manufacturing process.

“It’s a 1950’s process so anyone out there at Georgia Tech who has some great ideas on how to manufacture a vaccine in a contemporary way, I’m sure the government would be happy to hear about it. These viruses are replicated in chicken eggs and it takes a long time to replicate them,” Baker said.

Because of the countrywide scarcity, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) has created a set of guidelines to help target the groups that seem to be most vulnerable to H1N1. The initial target groups included pregnant women, those who live with or care for infants younger than six months, health care personnel, and people with preexisting health conditions.

“They have recently expanded the age category to the age of 2 to 24 year olds which most Tech students fall into,” Baker said. “We’ve finally reached the right demographic to potentially get vaccines. That’s good news for Georgia Tech because that takes our hopefulness to the next level. “

The ACIP extended the age category to college-aged students after realizing that the virus is causing serious health outcomes in this category.

“College students are more susceptible than other because of their lowered immunities,” said Pepe Bowman, Nursing Supervisor at the Health Services Center.

College students remain particularly vulnerable to the H1N1 virus and many other communicable diseases like the common flu. Often their immunities are significantly lowered by the rigors of college life. The HSD is encouraging other forms of prevention in the vaccine’s absence. These methods involve common remedies such as washing your hands and covering your coughs and sneezes with your arm rather than your hands. The Health Center is also encouraging students to get the seasonal flu shot.

“We’re trying to immunize as many people as possible because it helps everyone,” Bowman said.

The Health Center has administered roughly 3,000 of these inoculations so far this year. The shot is being offered at no additional cost to full-time students.

The unavailability of the H1N1 vaccine has allowed the HSD and DEP to create contingency plans for however many or however few vaccines they are rationed. The process for getting H1N1 flu shots will likely mimic the procedure that students go through for their seasonal flu shot. However, the process will depend on the amount of vaccine received.

“It’s all dose-dependent. How many doses of vaccine we receive really dictates the scale [of the number of vaccinations],” Baker said, “We have a contingency plan to do thousands a day to hundreds a day. We’ve planned and prepared appropriately. We spent the entire summer working on these issues and I think we’re prepared.”

The HSD and DEP have requested enough vaccine for the Tech community, but it is uncertain whether they will receive such a large amount. They are certain that they won’t receive the entire quantity in one shipment.

“We may have a restricted amount of vaccine and we will be following the same category of guidelines of priority when the doses arrive,” Baker said.