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Late Start for Flu Shots Causes Concern

By | December 3, 2013

The Lower 48 has been on the offensive against the flu virus for weeks. But in Unalaska, most people didn’t have access to vaccines until late November.

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An attempt to tailor flu prevention around Unalaska’s unique population didn’t go over well with locals.

Kathy Whitman has lived in Unalaska for years, and in that time, she’s learned not to take chances with her health.

“Out here it’s really kind of a concern because if you get sick, you’re pretty much looking at a trip off the island. You know, you’re having to go to Anchorage to get fixed,” Whitman said.

That’s why Whitman tries to get a flu shot as early as she can every year — typically in October. But when she called the Iliuliuk Family & Health Services clinic asking about her vaccine this year, Whitman was told she’d have to wait — all the way through November.

“I don’t think that this was a wise choice to be made,” Whitman said. ”You know, they’re taking a chance with our health, and if it was just my health — but it’s the whole community, you know? Once one person gets it, it kind of goes like wildfire, generally.”

While there is a risk in skipping a vaccine or waiting too long to get it, clinic director Eileen Conlon Scott says the flu shot can wear off.

“Every year we end up with a lot of people getting the flu at the end of the season because they get inoculated too early,” Scott said.

And clinical director Ramona Thompson says Unalaskans could wait until Christmas and still be protected.

“Honestly, it wouldn’t even bother me if it didn’t come until then,” Thompson said. ”I mean, it would probably bother the community, but I don’t feel like it’s a concern until the processing plants start ramping up.”

Thompson says Unalaska’s flu season happens later than in the Lower 48 — usually, from January through April. That lines up with the processing A season, when lots of workers come to town from out of state and possibly bring illnesses with them.

Even though clinic staff had a reason for giving out vaccines later this year, they didn’t notify patients that they were changing the schedule.

Scott says she got at least ten calls in October from locals like Kathy Whitman who wanted to know when they’d be able to get their shots.

And not everyone could wait. Some of the school’s highest-risk employees were inoculated by a visiting nurse in early November. And some kids under 18 who were also at risk, got their vaccines on time from a stockpile at the clinic.

One other high risk group is the seafood processors — the people who clinic staff say might be a driving force behind Unalaska’s flu season.

UniSea is the biggest processing plant in Unalaska. To cut down on sickness, they’re running a mini flu clinic out of their office here, and at company headquarters in Washington State.

But not everyone participates. And UniSea’s human resources director, Michelle Cochran, says they don’t require employees to get vaccinated before they start work. So it’s pretty much a given that some people are going to get sick.

“Every year, you know, there’s some sort of illness that goes on, and I think a big part of that is just people entering a new environment — you know, who knows what they’re bringing with them?” Cochran said.

Cochran’s also on the board of directors for the Iliuliuk clinic. While the board didn’t have a part in the decision to offer flu shots a little later this year, Cochran says she thought it made sense.

And the clinic’s not giving up on the idea that a later vaccine could be better. But next year, they’re going to give patients an option.

The clinic will be prepared to give flu shots starting in October. But they’ll be recommending people wait until November, so they’ll be protected from getting sick when it really counts.

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