County's flu shots ruined

Refrigeration units holding the county's seasonal flu vaccines failed overnight.

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Public health workers walked in on a disaster of sorts early this morning, one that impacts the community at large -- no more seasonal flu vaccine for the annual flu shot clinic due to refrigeration failure.

Trouble apparently began last night when Nora Bleth checked the commercial refrigerators at the Walla Walla County fairgrounds' community center and discovered the two units headed toward the too-cold side, she said.

She turned the dial a "quarter turn" and monitored the situation for another hour. "It was still slightly cooler, but in a safe zone," the nurse said. "I felt it was safe to leave it."

The refrigerators had balked a little in the past, fluctuating between temperatures, noted Susann Bassham, public information officer for the flu shot clinic. Health department workers, however, have always managed to stabilize the units to maintain proper cooling for the vaccines administered at the three-day event, now in its fifth year.

Mercury and digital thermometers are used to closely monitor the temperature in the refrigerator. Flu and pneumonia vaccinations need to be stored between 36 and 44 degrees, with 40 degrees being the standard.

There is "little to nothing" in the serum to actually go bad, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department. GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturer of these vaccinations, told him today the serum could be still used for up to 72 hours after reaching a temperature of 72 degrees, and maybe longer. "But we don't know. Because we don't know we don't use them."

At 6 a.m. today, however, Bleth found the refrigerator thermometers reading 88 degrees.

"In five years that hasn't happened," Bassham said.

Upon discovery that the last 1,000 doses of adult seasonal flu vaccine -- worth about $10,000 -- and 180 pneumonia shots were unusable, the mood at the community center was grim, Bleth said.

Other area health districts were called on the off-chance they had any vaccine to spare, Bassham said. None did.

The supply of 1,500 doses of seasonal flu vaccine for children was shot by 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Employees and volunteers will spend the day dismantling the temporary medical center and begin brainstorming how this outcome can be avoided in the future. "This shouldn't happen to anyone ever again," Bleth said. "It's such a loss to the community."

One possibility is to use the high-tech and remote-monitored refrigeration units at the health department for vaccine storage at night, Bleth said. "We should learn this lesson well."

One bright notes is that 600 doses of H1N1 vaccine arrived for today, enabling staff to begin vaccinating those in the top five high-risk groups: Pregnant women, health-care workers and emergency medical responders, people caring for infants under 6 months, people from 6 months old to 24 years and those age 25-64 with underlying medical conditions.

It was staff at the fairground gates that perhaps drew the worst assignment of the day. As cars arrived in droves before 8 a.m., incident commander Angela Seydel dispensed the bad news one vehicle at a time.

"Good morning," she said, leaning toward the lowered car window, framing the face of a smiling man. "We're out of seasonal flu vaccine. We do have H1N1 vaccine for priority groups."

Like drivers before him, his face portrayed a mix of disappointment and concern. "You gonna get some more of it?"

"No," Seydal said. "I'm sorry."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

Where you can get a shot

Local retail pharmacies were scrambling to fill gaps today after hearing of Walla Walla County Public Health Department's refrigeration woes.

A failure of the cooling system in the units destroyed the department's last 1,000 doses of seasonal flu vaccine.

Local Safeway stores are combining forces at the Plaza Way location, presenting a clinic from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.

Bi-Mart is dispensing its last 90 or so doses in the same time slot. Wal-Mart is slated to to vaccinate from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday.

Shopko had flu shots this morning, said pharmacist Lisa Thomson. The store on Rose Street plans to bring in extra staff to help with the demand, she added. "We'll keep it up as long as we can. We've got 300 doses and the phone hasn't stopped ringing."

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