This year the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department will offer 3,000 doses of federally funded influenza vaccine free of charge to persons ages 19-64 who do not have health insurance.
• If you don’t qualify for free vaccine, the cost of the flu shot or nasal spray vaccine is $32.
• The Health Department accepts Medicare Part B, Blue Advantage, Railroad Medicare, TennCare, cash, or check.
• Uninsured and underinsured children may receive vaccine at no charge or reduced charged based on a sliding scale.
• Residents can schedule flu vaccination appointments by calling one of the following locations between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.: Third Street office– 209-8050
• Ooltewah Health Center – 238-4269
• Sequoyah Health Center – 842-3031
• Birchwood Health Center – 961-0446
As the government shutdown slows federal agencies down, flu season is just ramping up.
The timing is problematic, federal health officials say. While flu shots will still be available at local health departments, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ceased monitoring flu outbreaks and keeping tabs on unfamiliar strains of the illness.
More than 8,700 of the CDC’s employees — about two-thirds of the entire staff — have been furloughed, meaning that efforts to conduct surveillance of the upcoming flu season and other infectious diseases were abruptly suspended last week.
“We don’t yet know what to expect at the start of this season,” said CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds. “It may build slow, or it could come at us very hard, like we’ve seen in several seasons recently. And we don’t know who it will most impact.”
A banner across the top of the CDC’s website says that due to the lapse in federal funding, “the information on this website may not be up to date, the transactions submitted via the website may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.”
Typically, the CDC will pool information from regional health centers and compile them into a weekly national report called “Flu View.”
That won’t be done any more, and could prevent health care providers and consumers from getting a heads up on nearby outbreaks or new strains of the illness, Reynolds said.
The shuttered offices at the CDC will not affect local flu surveillance, said Margaret Zylstra, epidemiology manager for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
“We collect flulike data from local providers here. And we have already received federal flu-related vaccine, so we’re in good shape as far as that goes,” Zylstra said.
But losing a bird’s eye view of flu epidemics and strains may prevent health departments from being able to steer vaccine programs across the country as outbreaks emerge and shift.
“We’re fortunate to have local and state departments,” said Reynolds. “But there’s a limit to what they have, and no one to support them at the national level.”
And the setback could impact next flu season.
The inability to track specific strains and test them in the CDC’s labs may mean that new strains circulating this year are unable to be identified and incorporated into next year’s vaccines.
The U.S. is coming off what the CDC calls a “moderately severe” 2012-13 flu season, officials say.
Last season, 149 American children died from flu complications, according to the CDC. That’s the most — barring the 2009 H1N1 pandemic — since the CDC started recording flu-associated child deaths in 2004, newspaper archives show.
The last government shutdown in 1996 also hampered the CDC in the heart of flu season, Reynolds said. But she added that the “impact is felt more quickly now” because of the new systems the agency has developed to analyze the virus.
“Our staff is very committed to protecting the health of Americans,” said Reynolds. “But at a certain point we’re going to fall behind.”
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.
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