Stateline Story

States test pandemic plans with free flu shots

As flu season nears, some states are offering free vaccination campaigns in settings that mimic an emergency response to a flu pandemic or bioterrorism attack.

Arkansas last month conducted the largest ever free flu-shot drive in the country, delivering more than 100,000 vaccinations in a three-day test of the state's emergency response plan.

It was funded under a $500 million program started in 2006 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ensure states are prepared to deliver mass medications in the event of an influenza pandemic or bioterrorism attack, explained CDC spokesman Von Roebuck.

In the past, most states have used the money to conduct computer-simulated drills or dry runs, he said. But more states are starting to offer free flu shots as a live test and protect people from seasonal viruses while they're at it, said Anna Deblois of The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials .

At least two other states - Colorado and Louisiana - performed smaller-scale statewide drills this year. Also testing pandemic readiness, Rhode Island dispensed free vaccinations in a few locations, Nebraska gave shots to 500 first responders and New York offered influenza protection to all state employees.

But "Arkansas is far and away the most impressive example. No one else has come close to vaccinating that many people," Deblois said.

In a well-advertised three-day program, anyone in the state who showed up at one of 81 statewide locations got a free flu shot - which cost about $20 at a doctor's office or clinic. Although, Arkansas had far more takers than expected, supplies held out, state officials said.

Temporary clinics were set up at schools, churches, state fairgrounds, convention centers and other easily accessible locations. For those on the go, some counties offered drive-through clinics in local parking lots where volunteers ran alongside cars filling out forms and health care workers delivered shots through car windows.

While the CDC paid for personnel, transportation and equipment, the state collected information from citizens for reimbursement of vaccine costs through private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. Once all the claims are processed, the state will pay the balance, according to Ed Barham, a spokesman for the public health department.

According to Arkansas' bioterrorism chief, Dr. William Mason, the campaign was a "resounding success," far exceeding the state's goal of vaccinating 60,000 residents. He said the exercise worked because of cooperative arrangements among state, county and municipal agencies and the Arkansas National Guard.

In the weeks before the test, the Guard delivered vaccines and other supplies to health units across the state. When one health unit ran out of supplies, volunteers transported extra vaccines from nearby clinics.

In addition to vaccinating a significant percentage of Arkansas' 2.8 million people, health officials gathered information that Mason said will be used to improve the state's ability to deliver mass quantities of vaccines or antibiotics in an emergency.

For example, county health units are calculating exactly how long it took to vaccinate the number of people who showed up and comparing notes on what worked and what didn't.

Arkansas conducted its first federally funded, free flu-shot drive in 2003 in nine counties. Since then, the state has expanded the program county by county. This year was the first statewide campaign, and Mason said the health department plans to make it an annual event "so everyone involved knows what to do and who to contact in case of an emergency."

"Plans on paper are one thing, but the people who will respond, including the public, need to stay in touch with the people they will work with if an attack occurs," Mason said. "Arkansas is a small state, so it's possible for us to know everyone we need to know in case of a crisis," he said.