Clinics, pharmacies and doctor's offices across Southern California were thronged with people seeking flu shots Wednesday amid fears of a threatened national vaccine shortage.
Dozens of people -- many of them old -- formed lines at drugstores, hoping to get inoculated before the flu season starts in December. At the same time, officials urged health providers to give shots only to the elderly, young children and others at high risk of getting sick.
A day after federal officials announced that half the nation's flu vaccines would not be delivered this season, local health agencies said they had only a fraction of the doses they had last year and expressed skepticism about getting much more as the flu season approaches.
L.A. County's healthcare agency, which provides shots to people who can't afford them, has 21,000 doses on hand; last year it gave out 130,000. Riverside and Ventura county officials have no vaccines stockpiled.
Some private doctors, pharmacies and clinics do have bigger caches, and officials were urging them to ration those doses to the highest-risk patients and give extra supplies to other doctors who need them.
Some complied, including San Bernardino County physician Ronald Bangasser, who gave 1,000 of his 25,000 doses to Redlands Community Hospital and directed doctors in his medical group to be strict about administering the drug.
His group had hoped to vaccinate all patients older than 50, but will now do so for only those older than 65, as emergency federal guidelines written in response to the feared shortage recommend.
"There will be time lost at school or work, but these other people are not at high risk of dying," said Bangasser, who also heads the California Adult Immunization Coalition.
Other doctors continued to give shots to whoever asked, doubting that the shortage would be as severe as health officials predicted.
"I don't anticipate, in our practice, having to turn anyone away at this point," said Dr. Kenneth Keer in Tarzana.
Meanwhile, flu shot providers across the Southland faced large crowds much of Wednesday.
In San Pedro, about 40 people were waiting at a Vons, with some standing in line more than 90 minutes for a shot. At a Rite Aid pharmacy in South Pasadena, more than 50 people lined up for a four-hour vaccination clinic. Callers to the store were advised that only those older than 65 or with serious chronic illness would be accepted.
"You'd better hurry up, because the line's getting longer by the minute, and we close at 6 p.m.," the store manager said.
The scene was much the same at the Longs drugstore in Port Hueneme, where more than 100 people, mostly gray-haired, snaked through the aisles for their chance at a vaccination.
Marian Yablon, 84, waited in line three hours before finally making it to the front. After paying $20, she got one of the 200 doses available for that day.
"I feel relieved," the Oxnard resident said. "I'm going on a couple of cruises this winter, and I didn't want to worry about getting sick."
Near the back of the line, though, the mood was testier. About two hours into the four-hour clinic, store managers informed those still queuing up that they might not get a shot before the clinic closed at 2 p.m. because the line was moving slowly. Several groused aloud.
"It's going to get uglier, believe me," said Jess Espinoza, 56, who was hoping to get a shot for himself and his 48-year-old wife, who has respiratory problems.
The threatened shortage stems from the decision of British regulators to suspend the license of a pharmaceutical plant in Liverpool because of manufacturing problems and possible contamination. The plant makes flu vaccines for Chiron Corp. of Emeryville, Calif., and was expected to produce 46 million doses for the U.S. market.
Federal authorities said Wednesday that they were trying to ease the shortage. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said an additional 1 million doses were available from the other flu vaccine maker, the French firm Aventis Pasteur. But it is unlikely that the company can produce more vaccine before the end of the flu season in the spring.
Six scientists from the Food and Drug Administration, Thompson added, were flying to England to inspect the Chiron plant in hopes it could clear some of the supply for use in the United States. Each year, more than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized and more than 36,000 Americans die from flu-related illnesses, 95% of them seniors.
In Los Angeles County, health officials spent Wednesday trying to develop a plan under which county and private providers could pool enough medicine to vaccinate the majority of the estimated 2.8 million people at high risk for the flu. The vast majority of such shots are administered by private providers.