Preparedness exercises allow county to open H1N1 mass vaccination sites

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The Polk County Public Health Department in rural northwestern Minnesota received its first shipment of H1N1 vaccine on October 23, 2009. That very afternoon, county staff opened three mass dispensing sites with the help of collaborative partners. The ability of the health department to launch these three H1N1 vaccine clinics would not have been possible had they not been exercising their strategies for the past several years.

With encouragement from its federal, state, and county leadership, Polk County Public Health has held public seasonal flu vaccine mass dispensing site exercises for the past three years. Collaborative partners from the communities of Crookston, East Grand Forks, Erskine, Fertile, Fosston, McIntosh, and rural Polk County, have worked with public health staff to successfully exercise emergency response plans. Some thought the county was preparing for an emergency response that might never occur, said Linda Hanson, Public Health Nurse Supervisor at Polk County Public Health.

In 2006, with staff from clinics, hospitals, schools, colleges, EMS, law enforcement, and the Minnesota Department of Health, Polk County held an exercise at one site in the community of Crookston. In 2007 it had exercises at two sites in East Grand Forks and Erskine. On October 23, 2008, the county opened all three seasonal flu vaccine mass dispensing sites at once. Little did they know how valuable these practice sessions would be exactly one year later.

Together with collaborative partners, Polk County has opened its mass dispensing doors twenty times for H1N1 vaccine clinics as of early December 2009. Polk County is ready to respond as the vaccine arrives throughout the winter.

The county's preparation permitted it to proceed with a sense of urgency in getting the vaccine out, yet with a sense of calm in carrying out its work.

Polk County is the fifth largest Minnesota county in geographic area, and approximately one-third of its population lives in the metropolitan areas of East Grand Forks and Crookston. Polk County Public Health had conducted its mass dispensing site exercises inside gymnasium spaces. The initial supplies of H1N1 vaccine did not require the use of such large spaces, however, and H1N1 vaccine clinics are being held at the county's three public health offices. Because there were not enough Public Health Nurses to staff all of the roles requiring nurses, additional nurses came from area clinics, a local hospital, a nursing home, local schools, and two Head Start centers. Many of these nurses had participated in the mass dispensing site exercises held during the previous years; consequently, they had already been assigned to one of the public health clinics located approximately 40 minutes apart. Each vaccine clinic was staffed with several professionals conducting registration and vaccine education, three or four nurses who administered vaccine, and two nurses who reviewed forms for eligibility and safety.

Staff in each H1N1 vaccine clinic operated under the Incident Command System that they had used during the mass dispensing site exercises. The community relationships that the public health agency had formed allowed law enforcement officers to quickly learn when and where clinics would be held.

Polk County Public Health has followed the Minnesota Department of Health's recommendations for vaccine priority groups. The county public health agency maintains a vaccine triage hotline staffed by a public health nurse where callers can determine if they qualify for the H1N1 vaccine. Many community members who are not in priority groups call frequently to see if they are eligible for vaccine, and Polk County plans to open the vaccine clinics to members of the general public as soon as enough vaccine is available.

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