VA is on call to administer swine flu vaccinations

The Veterans Affairs Department is accustomed to vaccinating millions of veterans against the seasonal flu. But this fall it is preparing for an added challenge: protecting civil servants against the H1N1 virus.

Once an H1N1 vaccine is available, VA will deliver it to as many as 180,000 non-Defense employees governmentwide, as part of a pandemic planning agreement reached prior to the current outbreak. The department delivers 2.5 million vaccines to veterans annually for the seasonal flu, and is well-equipped to deal with the increased workload, officials said.

"We have a lot of experience with large vaccine facilities for flu," said Shawn Fultz, senior medical adviser at VA. "We're ready to help the government as much as we can."

VA will use guidelines outlined by the Health and Human Services Department's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to determine which groups of employees will receive a high priority for the vaccine. Employees particularly susceptible to the disease or in positions critical to pandemic response and homeland security will receive the vaccination first, through VA. Those in lower priority groups will follow the protocol established by their agencies.

"We are working with businesses, nongovernmental organizations and government agencies at all levels to support the state and local health departments in making the vaccine accessible to their high-priority populations and to maximize the number of places where people can receive the vaccine," said Clare Helminiak, an official with the HHS Office of Preparedness and Emergency Operations. "Veterans Affairs volunteered to support other federal agencies in vaccination campaigns and we appreciate their continued willingness to assist as needed this year."

Helminiak said HHS expects to have enough vaccine for everyone in the priority groups and anyone else who would like to get immunized against the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine should be available by October.

VA is likely to take a multifaceted approach to delivering the flu shots across a wide geographic area, Fultz said. "If there is a large group, say in a city, the VA might decide to take the supplies and go to the facility," he said. "If it's just a few employees, we might ask for them to go to the VA."

The cost of delivering the extra vaccines has yet to be determined, Fultz said. He noted the department could end up immunizing fewer than 180,000 employees.

"Given that this pandemic seems to be less severe than what we were planning for, it's likely that those numbers may be less," he said. "It's always easier to scale back from what you've planned."

In the meantime, individual agencies are working with HHS and the Homeland Security Department, to coordinate responses to the flu. HHS has set up a Web site to quickly update information about the virus and the vaccine.

The Office of Personnel Management issued guidance in late July outlining human resources policies associated with the flu. The guidelines said employees should use sick or annual leave if they are showing symptoms of the virus, and that in some cases their manager can force them to leave. OPM also stated in the memo that agencies should use administrative leave to deal with the swine flu only as a last resort.

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