This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.
“We do have a vaccine that works.”
– Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
Federal health officials said this week that the swine flu vaccine boosts patients’ immunity faster than expected – which came as good news to all 12 Americans who have been able to secure a dose.
The vaccine – especially the injectable type sought after by some of the most at-risk populations – is proving more elusive this fall than Michael Jackson and Kate Gosselin costumes.
The federal government assured the country last summer that vaccine companies could produce 80 million to 120 million doses by mid-October. Only 22 million are available so far.
Administration officials are scrambling to explain. On Monday, they pointed to overly rosy predictions by vaccine manufacturers and a vaccine production process that largely hasn’t changed in decades.
Complicating matters are discrepancies in how local communities distribute the precious few doses they have received. In Snohomish County, medical providers and public health officials worked together to provide mass vaccination clinics last weekend. They’re planning another nine clinics this Saturday.
In Pierce County, supply is more hit and miss. Some doctors’ offices and retail pharmacies have received doses, yet the county health department has had to cancel its Sunday community clinic in the Bethel School District for lack of vaccine.
Confusion over where to get the vaccine and frustration over shortages are adding up to major headaches for members of Congress, who are quickly losing patience. A House subcommittee called the federal government’s preparedness inadequate and incomplete on Tuesday.
The federal government should learn something from this episode, besides not taking vaccine manufacturers at their word. Significant investments must be made in creating more efficient vaccine-production technologies that can respond more quickly to emerging diseases. Also, local communities should take the opportunity to reassess their communicable disease strategies.
One possible silver lining to the whole mess: Americans want what they can’t have, and vaccine shortages – as well as President Obama’s declaration of a national emergency – appear to be convincing more of us that we ought to get vaccinated.
Once doses are readily available, that clamor could help boost herd immunity immeasurably. In the meantime, it’s cold comfort to the thousands being hospitalized with the virus.