Capitol runs short of flu shots

The congressional press corps’ sharpened focus on the possibility of a deadly flu outbreak could take a more personal turn, given a decision by the Congress’s Office of the Attending Physician to withhold vaccinations from members of the news media.

The office simply received less vaccine than it ordered, a spokesman explained, so Attending Physician John Eisold has been compelled to limit free inoculations to lawmakers, congressional staff and police officers for the time being. He added that Eisold made the decision after consulting the leadership of each chamber.

“That [takes care] of the vast majority of people that work in the Capitol,” he emphasized.

The Capitol’s resident doctor usually provides flu vaccine to anyone with a congressional identification card, which includes press and contractors who work in the Capitol complex.

This year, the office doesn’t have enough vaccine to go around, the spokesman said. “We usually get what we ask for,” he added.

One reporter who got turned away was sympathetic to the policy. “It was clear that they wanted to give me [a shot] but they couldn’t,” the reporter said.

Jerry Gallegos, superintendent of the House Press Gallery, said, “A lot of reporters have asked about it.” Although Congress issues press passes to thousands of journalists each year, the reporters who seek shots from the attending physician “tend to be the regulars” who work in the Capitol complex, Gallegos said. Most reporters with congressional credentials spend little time in the Capitol or its adjacent office buildings.

Flu shots are not given to members of the press and others as charity. Vaccination is much more effective when every person in a given group — in this case, the daytime population of the Capitol complex — is immunized against the disease.

Although usually not considered a serious threat to younger, healthier people, the flu, or influenza, can be deadly. Every year, about 36,000 people in the United States die from the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Between 5 and 20 percent of people become infected.

The October 2001 anthrax attacks made the Office of the Attending Physician particularly sensitive to flu-like symptoms, the spokesman said. Reducing the number of flu cases makes it easier to detect an outbreak of a more sinister nature, he explained.

The CDC estimates that about 81 million doses of flu vaccine will have been distributed in the United States by the end of this month.

But like many other facilities across the country, the Office of the Attending Physician did not receive the full supply it ordered in January and decided on Oct. 24 to restrict flu shots unless it received more vaccine. Before that date, the office followed CDC guidelines and inoculated only people older than 65 and those with an underlying medical condition that makes flu more dangerous, the spokesman said.

The politics of flu shots can get tricky, some members of Congress learned last year. Those who availed themselves of the vaccine in the Capitol despite (or in ignorance of) a severe, nationwide shortage in 2004 were subjected to indignant finger-wagging.

Supplies ran perilously low during the early stages of 2004-2005 flu season after the vaccine maker Chiron was forced by British regulators to shut its facility in Liverpool, England. This year, Chiron is back in business but its output will fall short of expectations anyway.