By Sharmina Manandhar
WASHINGTON – Swine flu vaccines are now available to all Marylanders, state health officials announced Tuesday, discarding the protocol that gave priority to the groups most in need.
The expansion beyond the priority groups is a “window of opportunity,” made possible by declining flu activity and increasing vaccine availability in the state, according to a Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene statement.
The priority groups are pregnant women; people living with or caring for children younger than 6 months old; health care and emergency medical services workers; young people age 6 months to 24; and 25-to-64-year-olds with chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.
“Getting more vaccine into the general population may help Maryland avoid a third wave of H1N1 (swine) flu activity, protecting our most vulnerable neighbors from serious health problems, hospitalization and death,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley in the statement.
So far, 35 Marylanders have died from H1N1-related causes while 940 have been hospitalized, according to the state health department.
The state will, however, continue to “emphasize the five target populations who are at higher risk of complications because they should get vaccinated,” according to Fran Phillips, deputy secretary for Public Health Services.
“Opening up this vaccine to the general population means we will soon be shipping to local pharmacies, making it even more convenient for Marylanders in the target groups to get vaccinated,” Phillips said in the statement.
In addition, the doses will increasingly be available in physicians’ offices beginning as early as next week.
Maryland has ordered almost 1.5 million doses, so far.
Encouraged by the availability of vaccines, many local health departments are having flu clinics, providing both seasonal and H1N1 vaccines.
The Prince George’s County Health Department “continues to have a steady stream of vaccines,” said spokeswoman Erin Bradley.
The health department is holding a free walk-in flu clinic Dec. 15 and will have “enough (doses) to vaccinate everyone who comes in,” Bradley said.
A mass Dec. 20 walk-in flu clinic at Montgomery College in Rockville “will now be open to everybody,” said Mary Anderson, Montgomery County Health Department spokeswoman. The clinic was previously scheduled to serve the target groups.