H1N1 vaccine open to general public

ALBANY -- Those initially not on the priority list to receive the vaccine for swine flu are now in luck.

On Tuesday, all 14 county health departments in the Southwest Public Health District opened up the H1N1 inoculation to the general public.

The state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have relaxed restrictions to the vaccine, opening the way for the district to make it available to the general population. The initial doses were offered to five priority groups most at risk for developing complications from the virus.

"The state has given health districts the option of opening it up," said Dr. Jacqueline Grant, director for the health district.

All the health departments currently have H1N1 vaccine on hand in the nasal and injectable form.

The timing of the state and CDC decision worked out well for the residents of Southwest Georgia. A shipment of 16,000 doses of the vaccine arrived in the district last week, which gave more priority group members who had been unable to get inoculated a chance to do so. Until then, the vaccine had been in short supply.

The word from the state came in late Monday. Officials decided to wait until Tuesday to open up vaccine availability in order to give residents within the priority groups a week after the latest shipment arrival to get inoculated.

"When we got the directive, we felt we would give it another day. We waited until Tuesday to see what the demand was," Grant said. "Once we got a feel for the demand, we opened it up."

Despite the announcement a new shipment had arrived, most county health departments reported a low to moderate turnout. At the same time, health departments had been getting calls from people who were frustrated because they wanted the vaccine and weren't in the populations targeted to get the initial doses.

While it is now open to whoever wants it, that doesn't mean those within the initial priority groups have been forgotten.

"We still want to target priority groups," Grant said.

The injectable form is available to those six months of age and older. The nasal spray vaccine is open to healthy individuals ages 2 to 49 who are not pregnant. The H1N1 vaccine is free at county health departments, although administration fees may be charged to Medicaid or Medicare.

Having a supply of the vaccine available at a time when cases are declining offers the district a window of opportunity to get more of the population vaccinated before the holidays.

"I think, maybe, people feel the worst is over," Grant said. "We still have people in the hospital. It's not over. The potential is still there.

"I really am concerned enough (about the flu activity) enough that I want to encourage people to get the vaccine."

Experts say it takes around two weeks for the body to achieve full immunity from an inoculation.

While most people who catch H1N1 recover at home without medical treatment, the pandemic has claimed around 4,000 lives in the United States, including nearly 600 child fatalities.

Some health departments in the area will be holding clinics outside their normal hours to allow more people to take advantage of both the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccine. The Dougherty County Health Department will host a clinic Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in addition to their clinic today until 6 p.m. The Calhoun County Health Department, as is typical, will remain open until 8 p.m. today.

A few other health departments, for issues pertaining to low demand, have opted not to change their hours.

"Some (county health departments) will not be doing (extended-hour clinics) at all because demand does not warrant it," Grant said.

The health departments in Baker, Lee, Mitchell, Terrell and Worth counties are among those not hosting extended-hour clinics.

More information is available at the individual county health departments, at www.southwestgeorgiapublichealth.org or by calling the district's toll-free flu hot line at 800-829-2255.