The Westfield Regional Health Department, which covers Springfield as well as other area municipalities, has announced three H1N1 vaccination clinics for January, warning residents that New Jersey may not have seen the worst of the H1N1 virus.
Health Officer Megan Avallone said the clinics, which are open to everyone, will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 6 from 5 - 8 p.m. at Deerfield School in Mountainside; on Tuesday, Jan. 12 from 9 - 11 p.m. at the New Providence Senior Center and on Thursday, Jan. 21 from 5 - 8 p.m. at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield. An increase in vaccine production from pharmaceutical companies is allowing the department to have more vaccine on hand than at previous clinics.
"We have plenty," Avallone said of her department's vaccine supply. "We have more than the demand."
Based on the increase in the vaccine supply and federal guideline changes, Avallone is no longer limiting the vaccine to the targeted population of pregnant women, those between six months and 24 years, those between 25 and 64 years with chronic health conditions, caregivers of children under six months and certified health care workers with direct patient contact. In keeping with promises made during the height of H1N1 in October and November, the vaccine is now open to all.
Avallone said she is seeing a slowdown in the amount of people coming to the vaccination clinics since the first ones opened to a limited population in October and November. During the regional department's first clinic in November at Westfield High School, large crowds snaked through the school and police in riot geared manned barricades in case of the worst. This had followed a contentious seasonal flu clinic the regional health agency held in Garwood in October where more people showed up than vaccine was available.
Avallone said recent clinics held by the department have been peaceful and with less attendance that one would have predicted during the early days of the public health crisis. She said changing media coverage, which has taken H1N1 off the front pages is likely to blame.
"People are under the impression it is past its peak while that may not be the case," Avallone said.
Avallone said that New Jersey traditionally sees the seasonal flu peak in January and February and there is a chance that the H1N1 peak could be timed to the same as the seasonal flu peak. She said the flu peaks in these months for two reasons. First the temperatures are colder, which helps the influenza virus grow and become more prevalent. At the same time, the cold weather sends more people indoors which causes them to spread germs in the contained environment more easily, leading to a rise in flu cases.
"Influenza is very unpredictable," Avallone said. "There is a 50-percent chance that we are past it but a 50-percent chance that we are not."
Avallone said is urging anyone who wants a H1N1 shot to come to one of the department's upcoming clinics. In particular she is encouraging senior citizens to attend a clinic. Seniors who are 65 years old and older had not been in the first targeted population - when the vaccine was in limited supply - because a flu virus in the 1940s was similar to H1N1 and had given them a level of immunity. She said many of the recent H1N1 clinics have been well attended by senior citizens.
The increase in the amount of vaccine available has led Avallone to back off her earlier stark warnings about taking the vaccine from those in the targeted population. She had earlier warned those outside of the targeted population that if they took a vaccine someone in the targeted population could die. While the risks remain for those in the targeted population, and they are urged to get the H1N1 vaccine if they have not already done so, Avallone noted that the production of the vaccine has helped for future clinics.
"It is now open to everybody," Avallone said.