WASHINGTON—Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., Tuesday heard testimony from federal officials that poor communication on their part led to mistaken expectations about availability of the H1N1 vaccine this fall.
Representatives from the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Homeland Security (DHS) told the panel that they accepted responsibility for inadequately communicating with the public about reduced vaccine availability, resulting in too-high public expectations.
“Three months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that almost half the U.S. population would be in a priority group to receive the vaccine,” Lieberman said. “However, an advisory group also generated a secondary and more limited list of those who were most at risk, in case vaccine availability fell short of what was planned. This is exactly what happened, but states, counties, and cities were allowed to target whatever population they chose for vaccination. This has led to understandable public frustration and anger, mixed with confusion over just who should get vaccinated.
“With so many eligible Americans still unable to get the vaccine, a good situation has turned bad. I worry that we are undermining confidence, generally, in the public health system, and that people most at risk are not only not getting the vaccine but have stopped trying.”
Senator Collins said the hearing was “critical to peeling away the layers of misinformation and miscommunication that have hampered the federal government’s H1N1 flu response strategy. Many of our constituents, especially those most vulnerable to the H1N1 virus, are frustrated and perplexed by the problems they face in getting vaccinated.”
She shared a letter sent to her by Brendon Stearns, 11, of Greenwood, Maine.
“On October 27, Brendon wrote me a letter, describing his attempts to get the vaccine,” Senator Collins said. “He has two autoimmune diseases and asthma, placing him in a high-risk group for complications. Yet even after his mother called several possible sources – schools, the Maine CDC, doctors’ offices, hospitals, health clinics, and pharmacies – she could not find any available. Her persistence paid off when a source was found in Rockland, but that was nearly a six-hour round-trip drive from the family’s home in Greenwood.
“I was dismayed to learn about the extraordinary effort this family had to make to get the vaccine for a high-risk child. Such extreme measures should not have been required. And it raises the troubling question: how many others just like Brendon are still waiting for their vaccination?
“Despite consistent reassurances from the federal government that vaccine would be available for all who wanted it, the bottom line is that people like Brendon and his mother often have been left to fend for themselves. Scores of people in Maine are telling me similar stories… a veteran from Biddeford with compromised immunity due to a liver transplant…school nurses frustrated with last-minute changes from the CDC regarding vaccine availability.
“What is the national strategy? Where was the plan?” she asked. “Why wasn’t the plan altered when manufacturing problems first became evident? Instead of false assurances, why wasn’t the federal government explaining the challenges with vaccine production and revising and clearly communicating a new vaccination strategy? If I were to summarize the sentiments of people who have hit obstacle after obstacle in trying to obtain the H1N1 flu vaccine, I would choose one word: ‘frustrated.’ Americans across the nation are frustrated because they cannot take recommended steps to help protect themselves or their family’s health.”
The hearing, “H1N1 Flu: Getting the Vaccine to Where it is Most Needed,” featured testimony from: Alex Garza, Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer, DHS; Rear Admiral Anne Schuchat, Assistant Surgeon General and Director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Nicole Lurie, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS.
Dr. Schuchat told Senators that the CDC was committed to learning appropriate lessons about vaccine distribution. “Whether we meant to or not, I think we led expectations of availability to be higher than they have been. And so that, I think, can lead to frustration,” she said.
This was the fourth hearing the Committee has held on the H1N1 flu since the virus emerged last spring. Lieberman and Collins sent a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Monday, pressing for answers to their questions about the Department’s H1N1 vaccine distribution plan. The letter was a follow-up to letters the Senators sent last month and expressed dissatisfaction with the Department’s response to why some people designated as high risk had not been able to obtain a vaccine.