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H1N1 vaccine won't be widely available in region until after Thanksgiving

FARGO -- Minnesota and North Dakota health officials still don't know when the H1N1 vaccine might be available to the general public, but they do know it won't come as quickly as many in both states have been hoping.

Slow production has prompted state officials to cut back on original estimates of when and how much of the vaccine will be available. A large portion of the doses are now expected to arrive after Thanksgiving, with some shipments slated to be ordered as late as January.

The news comes at a time when North Dakota and Minnesota are seeing a growing number of flu cases - many of them attributed to the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu.

As of Oct. 1, North Dakota health officials estimated the state would receive about 388,200 doses of the vaccine. But a revised estimate released Tuesday cuts that number by about 10 percent, down to about 345,600 doses.

State immunization program manager Molly Sander said the state's numbers are affected by the decreased national production of the vaccine.

"It is frustrating," Sander said.

As of Wednesday, North Dakota had received 30,600 doses statewide, while Minnesota had received 170,000. The amount of vaccine a state receives depends on its population.

Once shipments arrive, the vaccine is distributed to locations within the state and administered to designated priority groups: health care workers, pregnant women and young children.

North Dakota officials have estimated, based on census data, there are nearly 264,000 people within those groups. That would leave fewer than 82,000 doses for individuals who don't qualify for priority groups.

Until doses begin to arrive in higher quantities and in a more reliable schedule, North Dakota and Minnesota health departments are hesitant to say when the vaccine will be available to the general public.

"The vaccine is coming slower than we would like, but it is coming," Minnesota state Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield said Wednesday.

"We do expect that everyone will be able to get vaccinated eventually," Sander said.

On its flu Web site, North Dakota lists which health providers are receiving H1N1 vaccines, but Minnesota health officials said they would not release that information.

As of Wednesday, the North Dakota Health Department had ordered 6,350 doses of H1N1 vaccine for Cass County.

Those doses will be distributed among 16 sites within the county, including places such as North Dakota State University, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Family HealthCare Center and Prairie St. John's.

About 5,000 of the county's doses - the majority - are going to Fargo Cass Public Health, which is dispersing them among MeritCare Health System, Innovis Health and other other county providers.

It can take about a week for doses to be shipped to the state after they're ordered, Sander said.

Fargo Cass Public Health Director Ruth Bachmeier said the department is making plans for future flu clinics to vaccinate the general public. But for now, only priority groups are being vaccinated.

"It's so very hard to tell," she said. "We know there are a lot of sick people in the community now. Some are going to be able to get the vaccine sooner rather than later. We can only base projections on what we're being told."

MeritCare officials said Monday they planned to start vaccinating employees this week. They are not mandating that workers get the vaccine, however.

Allocation totals for area ND counties as of Wednesday:

Cass ...6,350

Richland ...960

Traill ...580

Steele ...50

Barnes ...690

Ransom ...260

Grand Forks ...4,740

Allocation numbers

Estimated allocation numbers for the H1N1 vaccine in North Dakota, from October through early January.

Dates... Weekly total

Oct. 2 ...4,949

Oct. 9... 11,169

Oct. 16... 9,597

Oct. 23... 10,719

Oct. 30... 21,206

Nov. 6... 15,740

Nov. 13... 16,164

Nov. 20... 28,285

Nov. 27... 19,127

Dec. 4... 44,699

Dec. 11... 27,464

Dec. 18... 27,235

Dec. 25... 36,784

Jan. 1... 38,946

Jan. 8... 33,584

Total... 345,666

Note: Similar information for Minnesota was not available. These numbers are valid as of Wednesday, though the allocation forecasts are subject to change.

Source: North Dakota Department of Health

Forum Communications reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.