SOUTH PORTLAND — As school districts throughout the state scramble to vaccinate their students against the H1N1 virus, known as the swine flu, some students who are most at-risk for a serious case of the flu were not vaccinated during the first round of flu clinics.
The state is focusing on vaccinating students because schools are virtual incubators of the virus. The virus also seems to be hitting younger people the hardest, especially those with underlying conditions, like asthma.
H1N1 vaccines come in two forms: an injection and a nasal spray. While the injection contains a dead flu virus, the nasal mist contains an active virus that is dangerous for high-risk children with underlying conditions.
While students with underlying conditions are supposed to have the highest priority for inoculations, many of those students were precluded from the first round of vaccinations in South Portland, Freeport, Pownell and Durham because the school districts only received the nasal spray, not the injectable vaccine.
The H1N1 virus has spread to every county in the state and has pushed student absentee rates to more than 15 percent. Two people, including one child with an underlying medical condition, have died from H1N1.
South Portland Superintendent of Schools Suzanne Godin said there were 235 high-risk students with underlying conditions who were excluded during the School Department’s in-school clinic. Godin said she and other administrators have fielded dozens of calls from parents concerned about the type of vaccinations available and the flu clinics in general.
Wendy Diffin, the mother of a South Portland High School sophomore, said her son Jalen could not be vaccinated against H1N1 because students with asthma cannot take the nasal vaccine.
“What’s frustrating is the top priority group for the vaccine are supposed to be young people with underlying conditions and now they are unable to get the vaccination they need,” Diffin said.
Diffin said the district sent out permission forms that specifically asked about underlying conditions so the appropriate vaccine could be administered. Just over a week ago, the district informed her that there would be a limited supply of injectable vaccine and that her son was on the list.
Last week, however, she was told the district only received the nasal spray. They offered to administer the nasal spray to her son, but his allergist advised against it.
Godin said that she is unsure why some school districts got the types of vaccines they received.
“There is no central clearinghouse for how vaccines are allocated, so no determination of need was made ahead of time,” she said.
Falmouth, meanwhile, only received the injectable vaccine, and was able to hold clinics last week. Diffin asked if South Portland could trade a nasal spray for the injectable vaccine, but school officials told her that was not possible.
Falmouth Fire-EMS Chief Howard Rice said that all 1,300 students who wanted vaccinations were able to get them, but unlike other communities, home-schooled students were not allowed to participate.
“We’re working with the (Maine Center for Disease Control) as well as the schools to come up with the vaccine to give home-schoolers as well as those who may have missed the clinic,” Rice said.
Other school districts seem to be experiencing a smoother vaccination process.
Amanda Rowe, nursing coordinator for Portland schools, said more than 2,000 students have been vaccinated and expects at least another 2,000 to be by Nov. 23, the last scheduled flu clinic. Rowe expects about 5,000 of Portland’s 6,950 students to be vaccinated.
She said Portland received both the nasal spray and the injectable vaccine, but would not indicate how much she received of each.
Paul Perzanoski, superintendent of Brunswick schools, said H1N1 clinics were scheduled for this week. Other than having to reschedule the H1N1 clinics, like other schools, he said 70 percent of Brunswick’s students signed up for vaccinations.
“I have not heard any problems with providing the vaccine to any student who requests it,” Perzanoski said.
Nearly 75 percent of the 1,709-student population in Cape Elizabeth were vaccinated on Oct. 30. Officials in Cumberland and North Yarmouth said all students who asked for an H1N1 vaccine received it, but officials are still awaiting 600 seasonal booster shots for children under 10 years old. In Yarmouth, about 70 percent of high school and middle school students received shots and elementary school clinics are planned for this week.
In South Portland, meanwhile, Godin said the district would hold a make-up clinic to vaccinate more students. Until more vaccine is made available, teaching staff will continue to emphasize proper respiratory etiquette, like sneezing and coughing into one’s own shirt sleeve, and proper hand washing, while encouraging students sick with respiratory symptoms and a fever over 100 degrees to stay at home.
“Our hope is to provide vaccine for any student that was not able to be vaccinated in this round of clinics,” Godin said. “We are uncertain at this point how many doses will be allocated to South Portland. We are continuing to ensure our needs are met.”
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Young people from Cumberland and North Yarmouth are checked in and inoculated Thursday, Nov. 5, in an H1N1 flu shot clinic at Greely High School.Students and parents fill a hallway at Falmouth High School on Thursday, Nov. 5, as they wait for H1N1 vaccinations.