Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson today said there will be enough flu vaccine available for most people who need it, and he told seniors to stop standing in long lines to get a shot.
"We want people to relax," Thompson said at a news conference in Tampa. "The flu season is not here."
Seniors have been standing in long lines at shopping plazas around the country to get flu shots since news of a shortage surfaced this month. British regulators shut down shipments from Chiron Corp., which had made millions of flu shots in an English factory for the U.S. market.
The shutdown of Chiron cut the U.S. supply almost in half.
Thompson said flu vaccine will be reallocated to parts of the country where it is needed most. Seniors and young children are at greatest risk to have severe complications from the flu.
"We don't want people to stand in line," Thompson said. "We want them to understand that if you are a senior, there is a good possibility you will get a vaccine."
He advised people to first seek the shot from their doctor or a clinic. If that fails, they should contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, he said.
In Minneapolis, state health officials today reported the season's first confirmed case of influenza in Minnesota, a 44-year-old Minneapolis woman who became ill with the A Fujian strain of the influenza virus, one of three strains covered by this year's flu vaccine.
State epidemiologist Harry Hull said widespread cases of the flu usually surface six to 10 weeks after the first case is reported. He said there was still time to deal with issues raised by the shortage of flu vaccine before the flu cases become more widespread. The state was working with companies and healthcare providers to redirect flu vaccine to people who are most at risk for becoming seriously ill with the flu.
In Canada, Canadian Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said he believes Canada has a surplus of flu vaccine that could be provided to the U.S., but probably not enough to meet the U.S. demand.
Speaking at a health science conference Monday in Ottawa, Dosanjh assured Canadians they don't need to worry about a shortage like that which has hit the U.S. Asked about reports that the Americans might be able to get some vaccine from Canada, Dosanjh said: "I believe there might be some truth to that."
He said he did not have full details on the surplus, referring questions to David Butler-Jones, Canada's chief public health officer.
The Bush administration, which has opposed imports of prescription drugs from Canada and other foreign countries out of safety concerns, is rethinking that position, according to the president, who said during the final televised debate last week "we're working with Canada" to help ease the U.S. shortage.
But Thompson said Thursday that it was "doubtful" the manufacturers of the vaccine used in Canada could meet FDA requirements in time for the drugs to be used this season.
The vaccine shortage has become a political issue in the presidential election campaign. Bush is blaming tort liability for the shrinking number of vaccine manufacturers and chided his opponent, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for failing to support tort reform.
Kerry, in return, lambasted Bush for failing to plan for a shortfall in vaccine, starting TV ads about the shortage this weekend in the key battleground state of Florida.
Kerry's campaign cited a March 2001 report by the General Accounting Office that followed a delay in the arrival of vaccine during the 2000-2001 flu season. The cause of that delay: One of just four manufacturers then producing the vaccine dropped out due to quality control problems. The GAO's 36-page report said the problem could repeat itself.
"Now, a production delay or shortfall experienced by even one of the three remaining manufacturers can significantly impact overall vaccine availability," the report warned.
But the GAO focused its recommendations on improving distribution of short supplies to the most clinically needy, not increasing the dwindling number of suppliers.
"The purchase, distribution and administration of the flu vaccine are mainly private-sector responsibilities," it said. "Consequently, HHS' actions to help mitigate any adverse effects of vaccine delays or shortages need to rely to a great extend on collaboration with private-sector participants."
Joseph Conn contributed to this story.