“Foil the Flu,” NIH’s annual Flu Vaccination Program, issued its last call for the season via email on Jan. 14. The program, which offers free flu shots for the NIH community, ran from Sept. 10, 2012, to Jan. 16.
The Clinical Center purchased about 15,000 doses of the flu vaccine for the 2012-2013 season. As of Jan. 16, the Occupational Medical Service exhausted its supply of vaccine intended for anyone under age 65. OMS still has vaccine designed for individuals who are 65 or older. What few doses of the standard vaccine that remain are reserved for patients.
This season, OMS administered 13,532 doses of the vaccine. That’s approximately a 9 percent increase over the number of doses OMS administered last season (12,371) and a 21 percent increase over the number OMS provided 2 years ago (11,202).
OMS in the Office of Research Services and the Clinical Center’s Hospital Epidemiology Service sponsor the influenza immunization program.
This year, media attention has been constant and the headlines are about how sick people are and how bad the flu is. As a result, many people who are normally reluctant to get the shot are asking for it, observes Dr. James Schmitt of OMS.
“Two factors have combined to increase the size of this year’s program,” explained Dr. James Schmitt, OMS director. “First, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius ruled in 2011 that all HHS operating divisions should extend the offering to their contracted workers.
“The second driver has been the coverage of the ongoing influenza epidemic in the press. Last season, there was little media interest and few headlines about flu. It just wasn’t a big deal. This year, the media attention has been constant and the headlines are about how sick people are and how bad the flu is. As a result, a lot of people who are normally reluctant to get the shot are asking for it this year.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention flu web site, “In comparison to other seasons, the 2011-2012 season set a new record for the lowest and shortest peak of influenza-like illness. The season began late and was mild compared to most previous seasons for which surveillance data is available.” In contrast, the current season may not have reached its peak yet.
Despite yearly fluctuations in demand, Schmitt said the program’s goals are always the same.
“Our focus—our priority without a doubt—is centered on the health and safety of NIH patients who come to the Clinical Center to participate in our studies,” he explained. “From there, we circle outward to the health care workers who come in contact with those patients and then we get to the rest of us…This season, we immunized more than half the people who come to campus on a daily basis. That’s pretty remarkable.”
The Clinical Center mandates that all employees with patient contact are required to take the vaccine, or present documentation by their physician of a medical contraindication. About 93 percent of CC employees with patient contact take the vaccine.
Schmitt emphasized that the immunization program is a team effort, involving not only OMS and the Hospital Epidemiology Service, but also the Office of the ORS Director, which “helps us advertise the program” and the CC pharmacy, which purchases and manages vaccine dosages.
“The neatest part of this work,” Schmitt said, “is that about a third of the people who got the shot not only responded to our electronic survey, but were also kind enough to write us comments. Every year we evaluate what we did well and what we should improve. Those comments—and we can now read them in real time—help us further improve the offering.”
This season, more than 6,350 people—about 47 percent of those immunized—responded to the 4-question survey, which was delivered via email probably before they rolled their sleeves back down.
“Of those responding to the survey, 87 percent reported that they received the vaccine within 5 minutes of arriving at the immunization clinic; 99 percent reported that they were pleased with the service they received…That’s amazing,” Schmitt noted.
Over the years, the most common compliment the program gets by far is about the short wait time for the shot. Consistent complaints, on the other hand, are registered by workers who are unfamiliar with the layout of the Clinical Research Center, where the majority of shots are administered.
“We need to get more and better signage to lead people to the shot clinic easier,” Schmitt acknowledged. In addition, respondents suggest that NIH offer the vaccine at alternate times, including the noon hour and on weekends.
Noting that “complaints are probably the most useful comments we get,” Schmitt said another criticism this season was the delay in providing enough vaccine doses for employees ages 65 and older. A large portion of the NIH workforce is in that age range. The program underestimated how many NIH’ers would elect to get the special highly concentrated vaccine targeted to seniors.
High-dose shots contain about 4 times as much antigen as standard shots, Schmitt said. “Those who get that shot are also more likely to have a sore arm later.”
Although this season’s vaccine is said to be a good match for this season’s virus, and despite the high numbers of people getting the shot, many of them will still come down with the bug.
“About 40 percent of those who get vaccinated won’t be protected,” Schmitt pointed out. “[However] getting immunized reduces the likelihood of you getting the flu, and it may reduce the severity and duration [of the bout].”
As for other ways of avoiding the flu, Schmitt advised letting common sense prevail: “Stop shaking hands and try to wash your hands frequently throughout the day,” he said. “Please stay home from work if you’re sick. Don’t come in and spread it to everyone else. Also, stay away from places where crowds gather, like supermarkets and clubs. Keep your distance from people you suspect are sick. If you see someone coughing or sneezing, try to avoid coming in contact with them.”
For more general information about the flu, visit http://www.flu.gov/#.