Vaccine delay could cripple city

Delayed shipments of swine flu vaccine will leave most of San Francisco’s high-risk population vulnerable to the extremely contagious virus.

If an outbreak were to hit The City, the Department of Public Health said it fears an epidemic would overwhelm hospitals because of a shortage of beds.

In an effort to combat potential infections and hospitalizations, the federal government is supplying free doses of swine flu vaccine to municipalities. However, the “complex” distribution process has been slower than expected, said Dr. Susan Fernyak of the Public Health Department.

The City was anticipating its first big shipment of 100,000 doses in the last week of October and another 30,000 or so each week thereafter as needed, she said. Instead, San Francisco received 7,000 doses of the nasal spray.

Those doses will only be distributed to children 2 years and older and delivered to about 30 local pediatricians in an effort to protect kids, who are most vulnerable to infection. However, the nasal spray is not safe for some of the most susceptible groups — pregnant women and people with chronic health problems — and there’s no expected arrival for the remainder.

“We don’t have a date,” Fernyak said.

She said The City needs up to 180,000 doses to cover all San Franciscans who are at high risk for contracting swine flu.

When a larger shipment of the vaccine does arrive, the Public Health Department will offer doses to high-risk individuals, health care workers and emergency responders, she said.

But local emergency teams are preparing for The City’s hospital beds to be scarce in the event of an outbreak.

“It is certainly something we are planning for,” Fernyak said.

She said San Francisco has a hospital surge plan and is working closely with facilities to make sure they have updated their contingency plans.

Rob Dudgeon, deputy director of the Department of Emergency Management, said in the most severe cases, mobile units can be set up citywide, at hotels or the Moscone Center.

To date, 600 people nationwide — including nearly 200 in California and seven in San Francisco — have died after contracting swine flu since the virus was first identified in April, according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention and The City’s Public Health Department.

As for the lack of vaccine, “It’s not anybody’s fault,” Fernyak said. “It’s just the reality of creating a whole new system from something we’ve never done before.”

Know what to expect

  • Signs, symptoms and spreading of the swine flu virus, or H1N1:
  • Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea.
  • People may be infected with the flu, including 2009 H1N1, and have respiratory symptoms without a fever.
  • Severe illnesses and death have occurred as a result of illness associated with swine flu.
  • Infected people can infect others from one day before getting sick to five to seven days after; contagious periods can be longer in children and people with weakened immune systems.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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