Dearth of information heightens public's fears
Minnesota's medical clinics should go public with the information that many of them have on hand modest supplies of the H1N1 vaccine.
A week ago, Park Nicollet's website announcement that it had a limited supply of the vaccine triggered an avalanche of phone calls from panicked people who clearly thought the St. Louis Park-based medical center was the only one in Minnesota able to offer the shot. After 120,000 calls in four hours jammed their phone system, Park Nicollet had to shut down its flu-shot hotline.
In reality, more than 100 Minnesota clinics also had received modest allotments of the vaccine. That's grown to about 350 clinics around the state as shipments continue to arrive. Staff at these clinics are calling patients at highest risk and telling them the shot is available. What they're not doing is publicly announcing that they have the vaccine, as Park Nicollet did.
That's an unfortunate approach, one that only heightens fears about flu shot shortages as the pandemic spreads.
To post this information or not is a hot-button issue with clinic officials around the state. It's their call because the Minnesota Department of Health has adopted a prudent approach to ensure the vaccine gets to those who can benefit most from it -- very young children, pregnant women, kids with high-risk medical conditions and health care workers. Figuring that health care providers know best who these patients are, state health officials have given them priority for vaccine shipments instead of holding mass vaccination clinics that have had people in other states lining up for hours. Many of those queuing up were not at high risk for flu complications.
More vaccine is headed to Minnesota in the next few days, bringing the total supply in the state to 370,000 doses. That's about half of what's needed to cover the 718,000 Minnesotans considered highest priority for the shots. Clinics will continue to shoulder the responsibility for parceling it out in the days and weeks ahead.
As they do so, they should let all patients know when they have the vaccine. The downside is the potential for a phone call tsunami from irate patients who want the shot but can't get it yet. The greater good of making this information publicly available, however, outweighs the hassle.
Knowing that hundreds of clinics have received vaccine will significantly defuse Minnesotans' fears over the flu shot shortage. Even if you can't yet get the shot, there's peace of mind knowing that many providers have the vaccine; likely, one close to you. Your turn will come, and when it does, you'll work with your provider. Right now, the dearth of information has many Minnesotans feeling as if they need to have an inside source at clinics to know where and when to get the shot. It's ridiculous that flu shot availability has to be passed along in e-mails like a hot investment tip.
Making this information more public will also help ensure that those who need the shot get it. Not everyone is lucky enough to see the same doctor or go to the same clinic regularly. It's possible that some who need the shot -- those without health insurance, for example -- could be missed as clinic staff call patients when vaccine arrives. These people would benefit by knowing more about how and where they can be immunized.
The hassle factor, too, will drop as more clinics make this information available. No one clinic will be swamped, as Park Nicollet was. Viewing the vaccine as a resource to be shared with the community, the medical center courageously did the right thing and let the public know its supplies arrived. More Minnesota clinics should follow its lead.
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