WASHINGTON – More than 100 doses of flu vaccine have been stolen from a Baltimore homeless clinic in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes is only the second incident of vaccine theft in the country this flu season.
Officials are warning healthcare providers to increase security measures for vaccines, after the thefts from Healthcare for the Homeless in Baltimore last week and the theft earlier in the week of 620 doses from a Colorado pediatrician’s office.
Until the theft, Healthcare for the Homeless had enough vaccine to immunize its staff and clients, many of whom suffer from chronic lung conditions, poor immune systems, and diseases such as AIDS, said clinic President Jeff Singer.
Because it ordered back in January, the clinic was able to get all 300 doses it needed, despite a national shortage, Singer said. Some shots had been given, but the stolen doses accounted for almost half of the clinic’s supply.
“We were all squared away, and then this happened,” Singer said.
The vaccines were kept in an unlocked refrigerator in the medication room, which is generally locked but used often during the day, he said.
The supply was last seen on Oct. 11. But workers checked last Friday, after a staff member’s husband suggested that the vaccines might have black market value, and they discovered the vaccines missing.
Police were called, and the doses have identification numbers, so they could be identified if found, Singer said. But he does not expect them to be recovered.
Baltimore City health officials have offered 10 to 20 doses to replace those stolen from Healthcare for the Homeless, an advocacy group providing medical care and social services for the city’s homeless. The group has also contacted the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration about replacement vaccines and is waiting to hear their response, Singer said.
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson said his health department decided to help because Healthcare for the Homeless serves people with a significantly higher risk, not only of contracting the flu, but not being able to recover from it.
It is very possible that flu vaccine could become a popular black market item, he said. As a precaution, the health department has also warned health care providers to increase their security measures in storing vaccines, Beilenson said.
“It’s disturbing that some folks would take advantage of this panic,” he said.
The CDC does not anticipate flu vaccines becoming a widespread black market commodity, but it is still urging providers to properly secure their medications in an effort to head that off, spokesman Llelwyn Grant said.
“This is truly an unfortunate turn of events,” Grant said.
Since the theft, Healthcare for the Homeless has changed the lock on the medication room door and monitors its supplies more often, Singer said. It has also bought a new refrigerator with a lock, and only a few people have a key.
But that is all they can do, he said. Staff and clients both have access to the clinic’s medical supplies and workers have no way of knowing who could have taken the flu vaccines, Singer said.
Singer said people have expressed shock and dismay that someone would steal flu vaccines from a non-profit organization that helps homeless people. In the end, those are the people that will be hurt by this, he said.
“One would hope that whoever took the vaccines is giving them to people who really need them and not selling them for money,” Singer said.
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