updated 10/18/2004 7:23:11 PM ET 2004-10-18T23:23:11

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Monday that enough flu vaccine will be available for most people who need it and told seniors to stop standing in long lines to get a shot.

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“We want people to relax,” Thompson said at a news conference. “The flu season is not here.”

Seniors around the country have been standing in lines at shopping plazas to get flu shot since news of a shortage surfaced this month. British regulators shut down shipments from Chiron Corp., which had made millions of flu shots earmarked for the U.S. market. The shutdown cut the U.S. supply of flu shots almost in half.

Thompson said the flu vaccine supply will be reallocated to parts of the country where it is needed most. Most at risk for severe complications from the flu are seniors and very young children.

“We are looking all over the regions to find out where there is a shortage, and we will redeploy the resources to make sure the seniors get the vaccine first,” he said. He noted that 91 percent of flu deaths last year were people 65 or older.

Thompson advised people to first seek the shot from their doctor or a clinic. If that fails, they should contact the CDC in Atlanta, he said.

Few cases so far
Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that only a few cases of flu have been reported this season, and that 20 million doses would soon be available for seniors.

“We are reassuring people that vaccine is on the way,” she said.

Weekly influenza estimatesLast week, however, Gerberding had said it was unlikely that all high-risk people who want a flu shot would be able find one.

And in San Francisco on Monday, a group representing the nation’s emergency room doctors called on Thompson to convene a “crisis summit” of federal agencies and health professionals to plan guidelines in case of a possible flu epidemic.

“We believe our nation faces the potential for a public health disaster this flu season,” said Dr. Arthur Kellerman, a member of the board of the American College of Emergency Physicians, which was holding its annual meeting.

“The combination of the vaccine shortage, more than 80 million Americans at high risk of flu complications, and a nationwide emergency department crowding crisis means American’s emergency physicians and nurses are faced with the prospect of the ’perfect storm’ — a surge of critically ill flu patients and no resources to care for them,” said Kellerman, who also chairs Emory University’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

Thompson, addressing the cause of the vaccine shortage, said the number of manufacturers must be increased. For that to happen, Congress must remove liability for vaccine makers and the government must commit to buying millions of doses every year so the producers are assured of a “ready market,” he said.

Vaccines — particularly flu vaccine which is good only for the year it is made — seldom are profitable. Most years, a few million doses go unsold and are thrown away.

Thompson was in Tampa to announce that his agency had joined a lawsuit by the state of Florida against a Fort Lauderdale company accused of trying to sell flu vaccine at inflated prices. The state of Kansas has also sued.

ASAP Meds Inc., which does business as Meds-Stat, has denied price-gouging accusations and said it will fight the lawsuits.

Thompson said there are still 20 million doses for seniors and 4 million doses for children that are being shipped out at a rate of about 3 million per week.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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