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Most Ohioans Now Eligible to Receive Swine Flu Shots

The Ohio Department of Health has lifted restrictions on who can receive the H1N1 vaccine. Previously the vaccine was limited to high risk groups including children, pregnant women and people with underlying medical conditions. But attendance at vaccination clinics has been dropping. It was a slim crowd that turned out for a swine flu vaccination clinic on Refugee Road in Columbus late last week. Danielle and Ronnie Kaylor had tried earlier in the season to get their toddler Devon vaccinated. "We went up to a clinic in Hilliard but it was like a three-hour wait," says Danielle Kaylor. "Are you surprised that there are not more people here?" "I sort of am, yeah. I figured it would be busier than what it is," Kaylor says. The sparse turnout was a big change from previous clinics where lines have stretched out the door and the wait has been several hours long.

Kylie Scott remembers the first clinic she visited with her two-year-old son Teagan "It was the 28th of October at the Ohio Historical Society and we waited about 4 hours," Scott says. Scott brought Teagan for a second dose of the vaccine, the procedure that's recommended for children under ten years of age. "He has had the first dose and just needs the second dose. At his age group it's high risk if he does get the flu so we want to try to prevent that if at all possible," Scott says. Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began funneling H1N1 vaccine to Ohio, more than 2.5 million doses have been distributed statewide. Until now, the vaccine has been restricted to people in high risk groups. But the Ohio Department of Health says the vaccine will soon be available to anyone who wants it.

"In looking at the supply, in consulting with public health officials in other states we made the decision that this was a good time to open up the vaccine to anybody who's interested in getting it," says Kristopher Weiss.

Weiss is the state health department spokesman.

"What we're hearing from our local health departments is that the clinics are not as full as they were," Weiss says. "That's part of the reason we want to try and open it up. We do understand that there are some people who just won't seek out the vaccine." According to the Columbus Health Department, there are a half-million people in the high risk category living in Franklin County. But as of the end of November only 140,000 had been vaccinated against Swine Flu. The number of people in Franklin County who've become ill with H1N1 is unknown says Columbus Public Health Commissioner Doctor Teresa Long. She does have figures on the number of people who've been admitted to hospitals with flu-like illnesses. "And that number is almost exactly 450 persons have been hospitalized," Long says. "As far as the absolute diagnosis of H1N1 of influenza-like illnesses, it's a smaller number; about 260 persons. And while we do know there have been deaths of adults, the only reportable condition has to do with pediatric deaths. And of those there have been 2."

Swine flu first came to the world's attention this spring with news of the outbreak and deaths in Mexico. In the weeks that followed, the CDC ordered mass production of H1N1 vaccine swine flu acquired the title pandemic; there were daily briefings from health officials; businesses began preparing for widespread employee illnesses. But has the disease been as serious as was predicted early on? Columbus Health Commissioner Teresa Long says officials acted on the information that they had. "You only get one chance in a pandemic to get it right so you have to come on strong and then back off and moderate as what makes sense with what you experience," Long says. Predicting the course of the disease is made more complicated, say health officials, because influenza comes in waves. Last week the state health department downgraded swine flu activity in Ohio from "widespread" to "regional." But officials say another widespread outbreak could be just around the corner. "History can also tell us that in the various subsequent waves often the severity of illness has increased so another reason to think about getting that vaccine now," says Long. "But the important news is that so far the severity of illness is serious, but it hasn't had that very, very high level of mortality that we were concerned about, whether the history of the pandemic of 1917/1918 or what we first thought was going on in Mexico." Vaccinations at public health clinics will continue to be free of charge; the federal government is paying for the production of H1N1 vaccine and is not passing along the cost to the states. Providers such as drug stores and doctors offices are allowed to charge a small fee for administering the vaccine. The state health department has spent $1.5 million fighting the disease - the majority of that in personnel expenses. Meanwhile, health officials continue to urge all Ohioans to get vaccinated. The state health department's Kristopher Weiss "This is not a time to be complacent, this is a time to seek out vaccine if you can find it and get it. The flu season in Ohio typically runs through mid-March; we're here in mid-December. So I think that prevention steps remain very important," Weiss says.