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L.A. County opens up distribution of H1N1 flu vaccine to the public

December 15, 2009 |  5:36 pm

Los Angeles County public health officials have opened up distribution of H1N1 flu vaccines to the general public and plan to increase efforts to vaccinate African Americans.

High-risk “priority groups” were given early access to the vaccine by private healthcare providers and county-sponsored clinics. They included pregnant women, caregivers for infants under 6-months-old, healthcare workers, youths 6 months to 24 years old and those age 25 to 64 with chronic illnesses.

Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, director of the county’s Department of Public Health, said today that the department was opening up vaccines to the public because of their increased availability among local doctors, clinics and pharmacies.

“Given there’s more vaccine, it makes sense to open it up,” Fielding said.

Local healthcare providers have received about 2 million H1N1 vaccines so far this flu season, Fielding said. He said more vaccine shipments are expected in coming weeks, although he does not know how much is being shipped or how soon it will arrive.

The vaccines are bought by the federal government and delivered to states by private distributors. “We will have enough vaccine to vaccinate everyone who wants it,” Fielding said.

County clinics will continue to focus on providing the vaccine to the uninsured or those without access to healthcare, Fielding said. At the end of last month, 133,202 people had been vaccinated at county-sponsored clinics, mostly Latinos and Asians.

Of those vaccinated, 44.2% were Latino, 29% Asian, 19.2% white and 3% African American. L.A. County's population  is about 46% Latino, 30% white, 13% Asian and 9% black, according to the most recent census figures.

Of those who have died of H1N1 flu statewide, 46% were Latino, 35% white, 7% Asian and 9% black, according to state figures released last month.

This morning, county supervisors approved a proposal to double funding for H1N1 flu outreach, particularly to African Americans, bringing total funding to $1 million. Outreach will include bus and radio advertisements as well as campaigns by community leaders to raise awareness among minority groups, Fielding said.

“We had planned to have this campaign earlier, but because of the shortages, we delayed it,” Fielding said.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas directed the county’s chief executive and public health officials to report back Dec. 22 with more details on how they plan to improve H1N1 outreach to African Americans.

“We are looking for the department to provide leadership in implementing a more comprehensive, aggressive, innovative and strategic outreach campaign to African Americans,” the supervisor said.

Fielding said he met Monday with New York City’s public health director and discussed the difficulty they have faced in persuading African Americans to get vaccinated.

“They’ve had similar problems with under-representation,” of African Americans, Fielding said. “We need to do more to get African Americans in. The African American community is still concerned about the safety of the vaccine.”

Those fears do not appear to be shared by Asians, who have outnumbered African Americans even at county-sponsored clinics in predominantly African American neighborhoods. Fielding said many Asians getting vaccinated experienced or followed reports about outbreaks of SARS or avian flu overseas, and were more aware of the risks associated with such pandemics.

“I’ve had people tell me that carries over,” to H1N1 flu, Fielding said. “There’s a sense that this is a real problem.”

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske