Feb 21, 2005
This year's flu season has been a series of disasters and mishaps. First there was a severe shortage of vaccine at the time when flu shots should have been given to be effective as a preventive measure. When some vaccine finally appeared, did health officials take advantage of it? Did they push a big campaign to make up for lost time? Did they immediately set up free clinics and free flu-shots at workplaces and schools in time to build immunity for an illness that kills thousands every year? Hardly.
As a result, in Baltimore in late January and early February, so many students were sick with the flu, a couple schools and one college were closed down a few days. At the Maryland state office complex in Baltimore, the flu spread like wildfire among state workers. It wasn't until two weeks later that the state scheduled a "flu shot day."
When the cases jumped, did hospitals add staff and technical equipment to beef up their emergency rooms? Quite the opposite. In early and mid February, 24 Maryland hospitals were either on yellow alert – diverting non-critical patients to other hospitals, or on red alert – with critical beds completely full, non-essential surgery cancelled, and some people turned away. In DC and Maryland hospitals, ER hallways were crowded with beds and people had to wait many hours to be seen.
As for the future? Is the government planning ahead to avoid a chaotic mess for next year by putting more funds into public health programs? Are you kidding? Bush proposed in his 2006 budget to make sizeable cuts for training health professionals and in epidemic-control programs. And the budget proposes a 9% reduction for the Center for Disease Control & Prevention, the one public health agency that could develop and co-ordinate a nationwide, intelligent plan.
The flu vaccine shortage was only one symptom of a very sick medical system.