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H1N1 flu cases surge across California as doctors report vaccine shortage

October 22, 2009 |  2:15 pm

H1N1 flu cases are surging all across California with hospitals seeing an increase in admissions for the first time in weeks even as doctors are reporting vaccine shortages, the state's health officer said today.

“We, like everyone across the country, are seeing lower than expected” deliveries of vaccine for both the seasonal and H1N1 strains, said Dr. Mark Horton, state health officer. “As a result, we have some disappointed and frustrated providers out there who have not received vaccine in a timely manner.”

Horton urged doctors and the public to be patient, saying the federal government expects there will be more than enough vaccine for those considered at highest risk for infection, which include toddlers, children, teenagers, young adults, pregnant women, and those with chronic health problems. Because infants under 6 months cannot be vaccinated, parents and caregivers are urged to be inoculated.

Just 1.7 million doses of H1N1 vaccine have been delivered to California out of 20 million expected this season. On Wednesday, federal officials said vaccine supplies have been delayed because the H1N1 flu strain, popularly known as swine flu, does not grow as rapidly in the laboratory as the seasonal flu virus does, thereby limiting the amount of vaccine that is produced.

A federal official said Wednesday that, despite repeated inquiries, vaccine manufacturers did not inform the government of the delay until about Oct. 12. 

California is already seeing the volume of flu activity that it typically experiences only at the peak of a regular flu season, Horton said. Nearly 6% of patients being seen by physicians are reporting flu-like illness. Last week that number was 5%.

Normally at this time of year just 2% of patients seen at doctor’s offices report flu-like illness. The estimates are based on data from a network of 90 sentinel physicians who report to the state Department of Public Health.

Hospitalizations due to the flu increased for the first time in several weeks last week, Horton said. Still, reports indicate that hospital emergency rooms overall have so far been able to handle the load of flu patients, Horton said.

Researchers from Purdue University wrote in the journal Eurosurveillance last week that a mathematical model of the swine flu pandemic predicts the disease will peak this week. But federal officials warn that a second, larger wave of infections could arrive after Jan. 1.

With vaccine supply limited, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today announced the release of about 25 million N95 respirators, or half the state’s stockpile of the tightly fitting masks that have been shown to protect wearers from inhaling the flu virus. The masks are being distributed to local health departments to prevent shortages among healthcare workers, especially those who work at hospitals.

Two counties had already requested N95 masks: San Diego County and Plumas County in the Sierra Nevada.

Horton also said that health officials feel “very confident” that the swine flu vaccine is as safe, and is made the same way, as the regular flu vaccine.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II and Thomas H. Maugh II


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