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Regional health officer discusses battle against swine flu

Dr. Joel McCullough is the chief medical officer for the Spokane Regional Health District. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Dr. Joel McCullough is the chief medical officer for the Spokane Regional Health District. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The first mass vaccination clinic against the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, may be over, but the community is still wrestling with illness and trying to ensure that the people at greatest risk get immunized. About 2,100 people received vaccine shots or nasal mist Saturday – about half what the Spokane Regional Health District was prepared to give. Dr. Joel McCullough, hired last spring as health district officer, offers a few insights regarding the swine flu outbreak and what’s being done. Here is an edited version of an interview with McCullough on Saturday.

Q. Did the first clinic go well? What’s next?

A. Just listening to the people coming through the line, it seemed things went pretty well. We will have other large clinics, and in the meantime work to get more vaccines out to hospitals, medical providers and other small specialty clinics for the vulnerable population. The hard part has been measuring how much is coming in versus what we expected to have by now. I mean, last week we anticipated having 58,000 doses. Instead we have received fewer than 15,000.

Q. Is the severity of swine flu among people in Spokane surprising?

A. At this point, it seems fairly similar to what we would see with the seasonal flu. Most people are getting better within three to five days if they’re generally healthy. That’s a good thing because pandemics can be much worse.

Q. Has the emphasis on swine flu hurt efforts to vaccinate for seasonal flu?

A. I don’t think so. What we’ve seen so far is a pretty good uptake of seasonal flu vaccine as well.

Q. What is the swine flu vaccination effort costing?

A. The federal government purchased all the (H1N1) vaccines and they’re going to help local health districts with funding to get people vaccinated. But at this point we don’t have a real number.

Q. What hasn’t worked as well as you would have liked?

A. There’s always room for better communication. It’s difficult, though, to communicate an issue with the public and the medical community when it continues to evolve. For example, when (swine flu) was first discovered there were reports of many deaths in Mexico. Later that turned out not to be the case. But in the meantime schools were being closed. Now that’s not happening. That’s an example of getting new and better information and acting accordingly.

Remember this: Though there have been bumps in the road, good planning and preparedness helped get a virus identified, vaccines produced and tested for safety and effectiveness, and distributed within about six months. In that context I think public health has done pretty well.

Q. Should people who think they have had the swine flu still get vaccinated?

A. Yes, because you probably don’t know for sure. There are other viruses in our community. So protect yourself.

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