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Seasonal Vaccines a Hot Commodity as H1N1 Worries Grow

September 28, 2009
Related Topics: Benefit Design and Communication, Health and Wellness, Workforce Planning, Latest News
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A shortage of flu vaccine has employers scrambling to provide inoculations to employees before the cold season commences, flu shot providers say.

Demand for seasonal flu vaccine has been heightened by concerns over the spread of swine flu. Federal health officials announced Thursday, October 1, that they released Tamiflu for children from the national stockpile to combat swine flu and would begin distributing the swine flu vaccine to states for disbursement to vulnerable populations.

Richard Pennington, president and CEO of Southfield, Michigan-based Summit Health, a major provider of work-site flu shot clinics, said demand is up 15 to 20 percent this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that manufacturers are on course to produce about 114 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine, up from 103 million last year.

“Clients are coming back and significantly increasing demand from prior years,” Pennington said. “We’re getting overwhelmed with phone calls because none of our competitors have [seasonal flu vaccine].”

Pennington said he is turning down about 25 employers every day whose requests for additional flu vaccine he cannot fulfill. His company provides about a half-million flu shots to employees at 12,000 work-site flu clinics annually.

Two weeks ago, Charity Rausch, a pharmacist with the Employers Health Coalition of Ohio in Dublin, Ohio, was told by her supplier that her flu shot orders placed months ago would not be filled.

“I was taken aback,” Rausch said of the response from Edwards Medical Supply in Bolingbook, Illinois. “I didn’t know there was a shortage because I hadn’t heard anything at that time.”

In the past two weeks, as manufacturers belatedly announced the shortfall and its causes, people like Rausch have been on a mad dash to find the seasonal flu vaccine. Rausch put her group, which includes such companies as First Energy Corp. and FirstMerit Bank, on manufacturers’ wait lists.

Then she called anyone who she thought could help her.

The shortage of the seasonal flu vaccine that many employers provide free during the traditional immunization period in October and November is the result of a confluence of higher-than-usual demand and problems related to the production of the medicine, vaccine manufacturers say.

The spike in demand is largely because of fears regarding the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, which the CDC declared an epidemic earlier this year. Though medically unrelated to seasonal flu, the widespread concern over H1N1 has prompted many employees who otherwise would have passed on the vaccine to seek a shot this year.

Adding to this year’s increased demand because of H1N1 concerns have been snafus related to the vaccine’s production. A smaller-than-expected yield of one of the strains of flu that composes the vaccination has hampered overall production, according to manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur, the largest of five flu vaccine producers licensed in the U.S.

Makers of the vaccine have also had to contend with orders from the federal government for a separate vaccine that inoculates against the H1N1 strain.

“Producing two influenza vaccines in one year is an unprecedented challenge and has limited some of our flexibility in scheduling shipments,” Sanofi Pasteur said in a statement.

While manufacturers continue to produce the vaccine, promising later shipments, flu shot providers have struggled to meet demand from employers, clinics and doctors.

Steve Pellito, national director for Maxim Health Systems, a division of Maxim Healthcare Services in Columbia, Maryland, and the largest provider of flu shots in the country, said the shortage has forced Maxim to put employers and other clients on a wait list.

“As we continue to receive supply, if we have additional dosage we’ll be in touch,” Pellito said he tells employers. “At this point, there’s a good chance we won’t have the vaccine" for everyone on the wait list.

Employers with multiple work sites, including CBS and Nissan, cannot guarantee that all employees who want the vaccine will have access to it, sources familiar with the employers say. Even health plans and pharmacy benefit managers, such as CVS Caremark, have struggled to obtain the flu vaccine, according to Rausch and a flu industry source.

The demand for flu shots has, in some areas, pushed the wholesale price up from $8.50 per shot to around $22, Pennington said, a price that is usually paid by small doctors’ practices that don’t buy large quantities.

With a little luck and persistence, Rausch found a solution to her problem when a fellow employer-based health care purchasing coalition in Hawaii offered to sell her the extra shots it had. Soon, Rausch had laid claim to 2,500 shots—1,000 more than she needed.

“We were saved by one of our colleagues,” she said.

Will she have trouble getting rid of the 1,000 additional doses?

“Oh no, no, no,” she said.

They have already been accounted for.

—Jeremy Smerd

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