Officials take a heartland look at pandemic vaccine messages

Nov 11, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – In an effort to gauge how pandemic vaccine messages are being received outside the Washington, DC, beltway, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) yesterday held a tabletop exercise in Minneapolis and included participants from local media outlets and public health departments.

The tabletop exercise was the HHS's third one to cover pandemic vaccine communications. The last was held on Oct 2 in New York City before states received their first vaccine doses, so yesterday's scenario was unusual because it touched on problems and events related to the actual vaccine rollout.

Manufacturers have had trouble growing the vaccine, and some have reported antigen yields as low as one-third of the seasonal flu vaccine's. The slow-growing virus led federal officials over the past few months to slash vaccine availability estimates for the fall, and they have warned the public to expect bumps in the road as immunization campaigns get up to speed.

During opening statements, Jay Butler, MD, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) H1N1 Vaccine Task Force, called the nation's public health response to the pandemic flu outbreak "heroic." He said as of yesterday, slightly more than 41 million vaccine doses were available to states for ordering.

Forrest Sawyer, a former news anchor with ABC and NBC, moderated yesterday's discussion, as he has for several other HHS pandemic tabletop exercises.

Though discussion during the three exercise modules were off the record so that participants could freely discuss their responses to potential communications problems, one of the overarching themes was challenges that the media and state and federal officials face when providing information on supply projections and where people can find doses.

In contrast, much of the focus of the last exercise was on the public's safety perceptions of the new vaccine.

Public health officials from Minnesota and Wisconsin described how they and other states are grappling with allocating scarce vaccine doses to the narrower subgroup within the priority group recommended by the CDC's vaccine advisory group in late July: pregnant women, healthcare workers, household contacts of babies younger than 6 months, children ages 6 months through 4 years, and those between ages 5 and 18 who have underlying medical conditions.

Much of the discussion also centered on how to fine-tune vaccine communications and manage public expectations, particularly amid so much uncertainty.

In prepandemic projections, federal officials predicted that a vaccine to match a circulating virus would be available about 6 months after the virus was identified. Though the launch of the pandemic H1N1 vaccine hit that target, Bruce Gellin, MD, director of the National Vaccine Program at HHS, said pandemic plans didn't account for just a dribble of it at the 6-month mark.

Butler added in his closing comments that the vaccine shortage "shows how chaotic biologic systems are."

See also:

Sep 3 CIDRAP News story "Feds engage media on pandemic vaccine communication"

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