With flu season at its peak, UF gets more vaccines


Melissa Ray, a 20-year-old pre-health science sophomore at UF, is administered a flu shot by Kelly Mitchell, a registered nurse, at the University of Florida Student Health Care Center on Wednesday.

Andrea Sarcos/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 24, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 5:28 p.m.

As the peak of flu season arrives, the University of Florida on Tuesday received another order of flu vaccines in response to the severity of this year's flu, a variant of the H1N1 strain that the World Health Organization labeled a pandemic when it emerged in 2009.

UF Health Shands Hospital two weeks ago reported 12 deaths of patients who were positive for the virus, five of them younger than 40.

That motivated the UF student health center to order 100 more flu shots, since it had exhausted its vaccine supply by Thanksgiving, student health center spokeswoman Catherine Seeman said.

Communications sciences and disorders senior Allison Curran said she is glad the health center ordered more vaccine, although she had already had hers in the first round of vaccinations after she developed a sore throat.

"It's worth it for peace of mind and for the community as a whole to get the flu shot," Curran said.

On vaccination launch day on Sept. 20, the health center went through 1,000 vaccine shots, Seeman said. "Those kind of mass vaccination events do better than anything else."

Among the first to get vaccinated were health profession students because they are required to do so, Seeman said.

The health center had ordered 8,000 shots, which they give out for free, based on the number of shots administered last year.

"We use student fee dollars to purchase the vaccine, so we have to be very careful that we only order what we need," Seeman said.

Although for several years the priority in keeping Gainesville protected from the flu has been vaccinating schoolchildren, attention is shifting to college students as well, especially as some college towns nationwide are being hit hard by the flu.

"What we've discovered is that we've got a second group of spreaders, and it's the college students," said Parker Small, professor emeritus of pediatrics at the UF College of Medicine.

Alachua County also has more 18- to 24-year-olds per capita than any other county in the state, said Paul Myers, Alachua County Health Department administrator.

"When you look at the 18- to 24-year-olds, when that population is not well-vaccinated and transient … they come back and bring diseases back with them," Myers said.

Myers added that flu season in Gainesville typically peaks at the end of January or beginning of February, after the winter holidays.

Another reason the flu spreads among college students, Small said, is that they share very close quarters and closely interact in environments in which transmission can occur rapidly.

Not all college students are convinced of the need to get vaccinated. Rey Pierre, a 20-year-old UF accounting student, said he prefers to take other precautions against the flu. "I wash my hands and wipe the counter (with hand sanitizer)," Pierre said. "So far, so good."

‘Super spreaders'

College students also are susceptible to spreading the flu because they have an extensive presence in the community, working in restaurants, retirement homes and clothing stores, Small added.

At Vellos Brickstreet Grill downtown and Wahoo Seafood Grill in northwest Gainesville, 80 percent of employees are students, owner Shawn Shepherd said.

Shepherd can't require his employees to get vaccinated, but he encourages them to do so. He also sends home employees with flu symptoms or those who live with someone who has the flu, among other precautions.

"We change a lot of gloves and wash a lot of hands," Shepherd said. "We've got good control over it for the most part."

Seeman said the UF student health center has seen only five students with H1N1 and 33 with influenza-like illness. After the health center ran out of the vaccine, officials encouraged students to get the vaccine from their primary care doctor or the pharmacy.

Small, who helped develop the FluMist vaccine program in Alachua County schools, said he eventually would like to implement it at UF, as well.

This year, the program vaccinated a record number of children, including 61 percent in elementary schools, 44 percent in middle schools and 28 percent in high schools.

The program is based on the concept of "community immunity," where vaccinating children protects people in the community.

"In an average community, the schoolchildren really are the spreaders," Small said.

Over the past five years since the FluMist program's implementation, Alachua County has progressively reported significantly less flu than surrounding counties, Small continued.

"We are head and shoulders above anyone else," said Myers, administrator of the Alachua County Health Department.

Santa Fe sees few flu cases

At Santa Fe College in northwest Gainesville, the flu has been fairly contained. Bruce Major, a registered nurse and manager for the school's infirmary, said the college has seen fewer than half a dozen cases since the fall.

Santa Fe also has given out about 160 flu shots since mid- to late September to students, faculty and staff, which Major said is a fairly typical number.

He added that 80 to 85 percent of those flu shots are given to health science students who are required to get them in order to go on clinical rotations. The Santa Fe infirmary had 13 shots left as of late last week.

"It's a pretty typical year, which is pretty interesting considering how problematic the flu is," Major said, adding that he has heard there is a lot of flu on campus, but those with it aren't coming to the infirmary.

"A lot of these students are local and have their family doctors here. That's probably why we give out fewer flu shots than UF," Major said.

Correspondent Jensen Werley contributed to this story. Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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