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Ventura County

Hospitals Gear Up for Smallpox Shots

Health-care workers who volunteer for the vaccine would be inoculated in the first phase of a countywide anti-terrorism program.

February 11, 2003|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Smallpox shots would be administered to 800 Ventura County health-care workers under a new federal anti-terrorism program that goes before the Board of Supervisors today.

Emergency room doctors, nurses and other hospital staff would receive vaccinations on a voluntary basis. Health-care workers were chosen for a first phase of inoculations because they are likely to be called upon to treat the sick in a smallpox outbreak, said Dr. Robert Levin, the county's public health officer.

Response from the county's eight hospitals has largely been positive, Levin said.

"There will be health-care workers who don't volunteer for this," Levin said, "but we certainly will have enough [workers] to respond should a case occur here."

Simi Valley Hospital officials said they want more time before their employees are inoculated. The east county hospital is still assessing the risks and benefits and has not ruled out participation, said Jeremy Brewer, director of marketing, in a prepared statement.

The highly contagious and potentially fatal disease was eradicated worldwide in the 1970s. But the Bush administration fears that secret stockpiles of the virus may be held by Iraq and North Korea.

Under a program unveiled by President Bush in December, inoculations of medical workers would be completed by the end of February. In a second phase, other so-called emergency responders -- firefighters, police, ambulance workers -- would be offered the inoculations.

A third and final phase would make inoculations available to the public upon request.

In Ventura County, several major hospitals already have lists of volunteers.

Ventura County Medical Center has several willing participants, Levin said. Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks has 26 volunteers from all departments, including cleaning staff, nurses and one doctor, spokeswoman Kris Carraway-Bowman said. Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura has about 100 volunteers, administrator Michael Bakst said. Other hospitals have moved more slowly, trying to resolve employee concerns about the risks involved in receiving the vaccine.

Levin said side effects could include a day or two of feeling under the weather to more significant reactions.

The federal government, responding to union demands that workers be compensated for time off needed after getting the shots, is putting together a special fund to cover the cost.

But the odds of death are very small, about one in 4 million. That means one would be 75 times more likely to die from a lightning bolt than from reaction to a smallpox inoculation.

Other health-care workers may be concerned that the vaccinations are unwarranted at this time, Levin said.

"We don't want people to do it who don't really want to do it," he said.

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