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Public health officials prepare for 2012-13 flu season

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County public health agencies are eliminating free or low-cost influenza vaccines for insured children so vaccines through the federal Vaccines for Children Program are reserved for uninsured children.

Lewis County Public Health Director Carol A. Paluck said that doesn’t mean insured children can’t be vaccinated at public health clinics. Either their parents or guardians will have to pay an upfront cost or the public health agencies will bill insurance companies, if applicable.

“We are no longer able to offer VFC to all children,” Mrs. Paluck said. “If they have insurance, we can’t give them VFC as of Oct. 1. This makes sense because insurance companies say they’ll pay for it. We want to make sure it’s available to people who really need it.”

She said Lewis County Public Health already can bill Fidelis, POMCO, Excellus and Medicare for influenza vaccines, and the agency is working on establishing more contracts with insurance companies.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the VFC program “provides vaccines at no cost to children who might not otherwise be vaccinated because of inability to pay.” The federal organization buys flu vaccines at a discount and distributes them to grantees, such as public health agencies, according to the CDC website.

Mrs. Paluck said Lewis County Public Health can bill for flu vaccines for both children and adults. The fee for that vaccine through the agency is $35, as it is through Jefferson County Public Health Service.

For now, St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties’ public health agencies bill only Medicare. Representatives from both agencies said seeking contracts with insurance companies for billing is something that’s on their radar.

“We’ve looked at other vaccines for billing, but there’s so much flu (vaccine) available,” said Faith E. Lustik, Jefferson County Public Health Service health planner.

Ordering fewer doses of the vaccine isn’t something new to area public health agencies. Not only can people get the vaccine at their primary care provider, but it’s also more readily available throughout north country communities.

“We ordered 1,000 doses for this year, which is less than last year,” said Laura A. Duval, registered nurse and St. Lawrence County Public Health director of preventive services. “It’s basically because it’s available through retailers in the county.”

St. Lawrence County residents can receive the vaccine for $20 at immunization clinics throughout the county.

Each county public health agency also uses flu season to practice emergency preparedness and rapid immunization. That will take place Thursday in St. Lawrence County. Jefferson County Public Health Service will announce its public portion of the drill on its website Monday, after the county’s emergency first responders who preregistered have been vaccinated. Lewis County Public Health will have its drill Oct. 24 in the cafeteria of Lowville Academy. Flu shots given during these public drills will be free.

If people can’t make it to one of the emergency preparedness drills for a free flu shot, they can get the shot through their primary care provider, or their respective public health agency. Jefferson County Public Health Service ordered 700 adult doses, and Lewis County Public Health ordered 500 adult doses.

Ms. Lustik said there have been no reported flu cases so far this season.

“It’s not unusual; our peak time is in February,” she said. “You want to get your flu shot now so you’re protected once February rolls around.”

She said it takes 10 to 14 days from the time the shot is given until people become protected from the flu.

There has been one reported case in Lewis County, Mrs. Paluck said.

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