Amid the worst flu outbreak in years, a few Minnesota clinics have exhausted their vaccine supplies, prompting the state Health Department to launch an online exchange that matches clinics needing vaccine with those that have surpluses.

"It's sort of like a dating site for [health care] providers," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease epidemiology at the Health Department.

Although the flu outbreak may have peaked in Minnesota -- with 67 deaths and 1,824 patients hospitalized as of last week -- health officials say it's not too late to get a flu shot, and clinics say they're still busy.

By Tuesday afternoon, a few clinics were seeking vaccine on the website and about 20 were offering supplies.

The Health Department has worked with health care providers experiencing vaccine shortages before, but the exchange marks the first time it has launched an online tool to direct distribution of supplies. The department doesn't actually redistribute vaccines, which are privately purchased, but instead allows clinics statewide to coordinate among themselves to meet patient demand.

But the publicly viewable online site allows health care providers to shift vaccine supplies where they're most needed, whether they happen to be buyers or sellers, Ehresmann said. The exchange is essentially a Web bulletin board: Representatives of health care providers can log in without an account, post their needs, share their contact information and reply to other topic threads.

Nearly out of vaccine

United Family Medicine in St. Paul ran out of a certain kind of vaccine syringe last week and is seeking another clinic with the necessary supplies. Other clinics have posted their needs, as well, and some have already made connections within days of the website's launch.

"We are nearly out of vaccine, but not completely, so we hope to purchase enough to get us [through]," said Marge Dubbelde, clinical services manager at Western ObGyn, a chain of clinics west of the metro area. Her clinic was seeking injectable flu vaccines for adults and had already received three direct responses.

"I think it is a great tool, but currently is being underutilized," said Michelle Hanrahan, a wellness coordinator at Wellness Partners, which had already received a response seeking to purchase its extra vaccine.

"It seems like a good idea ... to meet unmet needs," said Steven Kastendieck, pharmacy operations manager and a residency program director at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, which was offering 320 extra syringes of vaccine.

Since the exchange operates statewide, some logistical problems have cropped up. Western ObGyn has locations from Chanhassen to Winsted, Minn., for example, but couldn't find nearby clinics with vaccine to offer.

"The vaccine has to be transported at certain [temperatures], so we don't want to go too far to pick it up," Dubbelde said.

Ehresmann said she hopes providers in the same region will find each other soon, and streamline the vaccine exchanges.

"Vaccine in a refrigerator does the public health and well-being no good," Kastendieck said.

Jeff Hargarten is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.