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South Carolina health officials reacted quickly last week to a shortage of flu vaccines for infants and young children, changing guidelines "just in time" for some Beaufort County clinics, according to area health care providers.
The early peak of flu this season has caused a shortage of the type of vaccine suitable for children 6 months to 3 years old. Supplies still are available from the federal and state governments. However, the national supply is only for children on Medicaid, and South Carolina's supply is reserved for patients who don't have private health insurance or Medicaid.
To help privately insured people, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is making a one-time exception to rules governing who can receive the state's supply. Physicians can get the vaccine when their privately provided doses are depleted.
The exception applies only to flu vaccines, and only through June 30.
Sea Island Pediatrics, which has offices in Beaufort and Bluffton, ran out of doses for children ages 2 to 4 about two weeks ago, but still has plenty of vaccines for infants, according to the practice's manager, Kathy Abraham.
"We could take the baby flu (vaccine) and double it to give to older kids. ... It's just making sure we have enough for both Bluffton and (Beaufort)," she said. "Our physicians say DHEC's timing was perfect."
Abraham said about half of the clinic's patients have private insurance.
About 90 percent of Beaufort Pediatrics' patients are uninsured or on Medicaid, according to staff nurse Sarah Anderson. That's why the clinic opted to get flu vaccines through the federal program Vaccines For Children and didn't enroll in the state's program.
That means it can't dip into DHEC's supply, Anderson said.
Beaufort Pediatrics ran out of privately funded vaccines about two weeks ago, she said.
"Manufacturers have either sent clinics to federally funded programs, or they're just out of luck at this point in the game," Anderson said.
Fortunately, area health care professionals say, the flu season seems to be winding down.
"Because of the rush that was caused with the media blitz at the end of December and early January ... everyone is trying to get vaccines again," Anderson said. "What we're seeing is the number of flu cases in kids coming in is declining."
There were 68 flu-related hospitalizations and three flu-related deaths in the state in the week ending Jan. 19, according to the most recent statistics from DHEC. That brings the season totals to 1,279 hospitalizations and 30 deaths, according to DHEC. Most of the hospitalizations and deaths involve the elderly or the very young.
"There was a huge surge in November and December," Abraham said. "It was awful. ... You could see it in their faces when they walked in the door."
Follow reporter Anne Christnovich at twitter.com/IPBG_Anne. The (Columbia) State contributed to this report.