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Flu now widespread in 24 states; Minnesotans press for vaccine
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Hundreds of people lined up for flu shots on Friday at a clinic in St. Paul (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
Hundreds of people lined up outside of the Minnesota Department of Health's office in St. Paul on Friday in hopes of getting a flu shot. Demand for the vaccine has increased in the last week after the two manufacturers who make the vaccine said they've run out and won't be able to make any more in the near future. Twenty-four states to date have reported a widespread flu outbreak. The concern has also prompted some Minnesota health plans to reverse an earlier decision and start covering the cost of FluMist, a new, more expensive, nasal vaccine.

St. Paul, Minn. — By noon a line of over 300 people snaked through the halls of the Minnesota Health Department, out the door and down the block, coiling into the parking lot. Officials with the Red Cross handed out warm drinks to the bundled masses waiting to get inside.

People started lining up three hours before flu shots were scheduled to be given out. Sherri Desmond-May thought it was important to get a flu shot this year.

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Image At shot at the vaccine

"I went to Allina to get my flu shot and they were all out. I would like to have a nice winter outside skiing," she said.

The Health Department's Kris Ehresmann says the department will hold more flu shots clinics through next Friday. She says it's likely that they'll run out of the vaccine after that.

Ehresmann says demand for the vaccine increased after an influenza epidemic hit some Western states earlier than expected. She also says media coverage of an expected shortage along with reports of a severe flu season prompted more people to want a flu shot. Ehresmann says it's important for people to take precautions, but says people shouldn't go overboard.

"Vaccination is always our first choice but when that isn't a possibility, there's plenty of things people can do," she said. "You may be interested to know that I have two children, 9 and 11, and neither of them has been vaccinated. They're both healthy and given the situation, they're not at an increased risk of flu, they don't have any of the chronic illnesses like asthma and I feel comfortable that they're not vaccinated."

Ehresmann says people should take several steps to prevent the spread of influenza. She recommends washing hands regularly, covering the mouth for a cough or sneeze and staying home from school or work when not feeling well.

Minnesota's three largest HMOs are also making some adjustments to limit a flu outbreak by announcing that they would start covering FluMist, a nasal vaccine.

Blue Cross Blue Shield made its announcement on Friday morning, and by mid-afternoon Medica and HealthPartners had followed suit. Blue Cross Medical Director Keith Folkert says the HMO wants to ensure that the traditional vaccine is given to those who won't be able to get the nasal spray.

"We're trying to divert whatever we can to the high-risk people and if it takes giving the vaccination, the FluMist, to low-risk people, that's something that we're going to go along with," Folkert said.

The FluMist vaccine is different than the traditional flu shot. It's a live virus, so the vaccine is not recommended for people with weak immune systems or people who are living with people who have weak immune systems. It's not recommended for pregnant women and people over the age of 50 who have asthma or other respiratory diseases. HealthPartners Medical Director George Isham says his organization will work with health care providers and the Health Department to decide who gets which vaccine.

"If we're all out of the standard vaccine, we need to have our experts advising us what role FluMist can play under that circumstance. And we want to make that available for people to consider," according to Isham.

HMOs nationwide have been reluctant to cover the FluMist vaccine for several reasons. It's three to four more times expensive than the traditional vaccine. It's also new, so health care professionals aren't as sure of its effectiveness.

Medica Medical Director Charlie Fazio says his organization decided to cover FluMist after speaking with the Health Department about the vaccine shortage

"It's less of an issue about savings down the road and more the overall public health issue. There's so much public concern about influenza this year based on those outbreaks in other states and based on the prediction that this potentially could be a more severe flu year. We wanted to do work however we could to alleviate that concern," said Fazio.

Health department officials say they're happy that the public will use up the traditional flu vaccine this year. They urge people, however, to remember to get their flu shots next October, rather than wait until December.

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