IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Texas border city has no more flu shots

/ Source: The Associated Press

Sitting at a card table in the corner of Barry Coleman’s Pharmacy, a 90-year-old woman rolled up her sleeve and got one of the last flu shots available in the area.

Nearly deaf, Louise Mowbray said she hadn’t been worried about finding a shot because her daughter, Jacquelyn Wehmeyer, is a health care worker. But it was a challenge, even for Wehmeyer, to track down one of those elusive shots.

After going to several clinics that had run out, Wehmeyer said she called a church friend, Coleman, who was holding a few doses for those most in need.

With more than 700,000 people in its metro population, El Paso may be one of the largest and poorest places to have so little vaccine, although it’s hard to be sure. U.S. health officials are mum on where the worst shortages are.

El Paso’s top health official, Dr. Jorge Magana, said: “We do not have any more flu vaccine to provide to the public. We don’t know when we will have more vaccine available.”

The city’s only public hospital, Thomason Hospital, has held on to 300 doses for patients whose lives would be in danger if they caught the flu. The operator of two private hospitals here has some vaccine in reserve, but won’t say how much.

Some residents have tried crossing the border to buy flu shots in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. But the supplies in that city, where flu shots are still somewhat a novelty, also have been sparse.

Taxing overburdened system

The vaccine shortage was caused when one of the United States’ two flu vaccine suppliers, Chiron Corp., was barred from shipping its vaccine because of contamination. That cut almost in half the 100 million doses U.S. officials were expecting.

Healthy Americans are urged to forgo shots so there will be enough for those at highest risk of getting seriously ill from flu. Each year, 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with the virus and 36,000 die. In Texas, health officials estimate about 8,000 are hospitalized and 1,500 die.

Thousands of El Paso residents have relied in years past on the Visiting Nurse Association, the city’s largest provider of flu shots. Most years it’s provided about half of the 42,000 shots given to the public.

But that organization had its vaccine contract with Chiron.

“We never received one dose of vaccine,” said Brian Zweber, the association’s vice president of business development. He hopes to eventually get some limited amounts as the government works with the remaining vaccine supplier, Aventis Pasteur, to carefully distribute shots not already in the pipeline.

Zweber said the nurse association has 1,200 home-care patients, all high-risk, and they will be the first to get the shots.

Magana said it’s unlikely El Paso will get enough vaccine to inoculate all its high-risk residents before January. Most years the flu season peaks in February, with January the second most common peak month.

El Paso health officials also worry the flu season will tax an already overburdened health care system. The city is one of the poorest in the nation — nearly one in five families lives below the poverty level — and many residents do not have health insurance. The problem is compounded by a doctor and nurse shortage, and an influx of Mexican immigrants crossing the border for health care.

“Our hospital, like most hospitals, is already very, very full,” said Margaret Althoff-Olivas, spokeswoman for Thomason Hospital. “If we can’t get any more vaccine, we’ll have to make some very difficult decisions.”

Rene Hurtado, spokesman for the Sierra/Providence Health Network, which operates two private hospitals in El Paso, said the company has some vaccine in reserve, but he wouldn’t provide specifics.

Sierra/Providence has more than 70 hospitals across the country. It ordered its vaccine from Aventis and Hurtado said the network’s hospitals are prepared to share based on need.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said some 20 million doses will be shipped to areas with shortages over the next six to eight weeks.