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Flu shot frenzy hits Whidbey Island

South Whidbey resident Lisa Bjork receives a flu vaccine from Shannon McDonnell at the South Whidbey Health Department yesterday. Bjork was one of about 100 people who poured through clinic doors beginning at 1 p.m. for one of the remaining doses still available. Health department officials divided the remaining doses available between Coupeville, Langley and today in Oak Harbor. Vaccine is still available for high risk children. - Gayle Saran
South Whidbey resident Lisa Bjork receives a flu vaccine from Shannon McDonnell at the South Whidbey Health Department yesterday. Bjork was one of about 100 people who poured through clinic doors beginning at 1 p.m. for one of the remaining doses still available. Health department officials divided the remaining doses available between Coupeville, Langley and today in Oak Harbor. Vaccine is still available for high risk children.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Mimicking a scene repeated around the country this week, people started lining up outside Island Drug in Oak Harbor at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, hoping to get their flu shots before the vaccine ran out.

Only 15 people were able to get shots from pharmacist Bill Bulpin, the last of 1,000 doses he ordered for the season. It’s the busiest Bulpin has ever been giving flu shots.

“We’re the best kept secret on the island,” he said.

Flu shots have been available at the pharmacy since September, during all regular business hours. Tuesday was the first day he had people lined up when he arrived at 9 a.m.

“I would have gotten here earlier if I had known people were waiting,” he said as he prepared to administer his first of the last flu shots.

The flu that is infecting islanders this season has yet to hit anywhere near epidemic levels, Whidbey Islanders are getting their flu shots at a fever pitch, and supplies will likely be depleted by the end of the week for all but the youngest. The lineup at South Whidbey’s public health clinic was just as long Tuesday morning.

Jim O’Connor said he has never gotten a flu shot before, but he was first in the door at Island Drug.

“I can’t afford to be sick,” he said.

He explained that he flies frequently for his job, and had heard that one person on an airplane with the flu could infect 75 percent of the passengers.

Flu-related deaths recently of five children in Colorado and one in New Mexico may have helped fuel the flu-shot frenzy. But Dr. Roger Case, Island County’s health officer — and the State Health Department — report there have been no child deaths from the flu in Washington. Influenza death rates overall are within expected limits.

“There is a little concern going on because it hit earlier,” Case said.

Case said the Island County Health Department expects to be out of flu vaccine for adults by the end of the week, but has ordered 400 more doses for children. Those will be distributed to local pediatricians.

As for adult vaccine, “there isn’t any more to get,” Shannon McDonnell, director of the county’s immunization clinics, said.

The health department ordered 2,000 initial doses, fewer than last year. McDonnell said her agency expected to need less vaccine because more people were getting their shots at private clinics, and the county was no longer vaccinating Group Health clients.

Like many clinics around the country, Island County ended up throwing out vaccine last year. Until the past few weeks, business had been slow at the county-operated flu clinics. Now the health department is fielding about two calls per minute from islanders looking for protection from the flu.

While the early and rapid spread of the flu has been a hot topic in the media, Case said it is nowhere near a level that should cause panic, and is in fact no different so far than the average flu season.

Case said he does expect this year’s flu season to be more severe than the last two years, but not in the realm of an epidemic.

If you haven’t already gotten a shot, or scheduled an appointment, it may be too late anyway.

The Coupeville clinic ran out of vaccine Monday. The South Whidbey health department clinic used the last of its vaccine allotment Tuesday, and McDonnell expected the 80 doses available today at the Oak Harbor clinic to go quickly as well.

Whidbey Community Physicians reports it has only enough vaccine for patients who have made appointments for this week. Pediatricians will have limited supplies.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station hasn’t run out of vaccine yet, but hospital Public Affairs Officer Sarah McGruder said at this point, the base hospital is targeting children and the older generation.

McGruder said they more than 4,000 shots have been given on the base and at two clinic sessions in Oak Harbor.

The Oak Harbor School District is sending out letters this week warning some parents to bring their children’s immunizations up to date or those children could face expulsion until vaccinated.

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