The first doses of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine will arrive this week, and health officials really want you to get it.
So much that they plan to take the vaccine to schools and day care centers, colleges and universities, community centers, and possibly even airports.
Fighting the virus that has infected millions and killed thousands around the world is becoming a huge vaccination campaign, targeting more than half the U.S. population.
"What we're looking at now is vaccinating as many people as want to be vaccinated in as short a period of time as possible," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Vaccinations are voluntary for most of us, but workers at some hospitals — including every one in New York — must be vaccinated. Same for U.S. military troops, starting with those deploying to war zones.
Health officials know that distributing the vaccine could be the easiest part of their task. The real issue: convincing Americans that they need the vaccine, and that it won't hurt them.
There are also myths and misinformation about the vaccine, "which make it difficult to get people vaccinated every year and will undoubtedly make it difficult this year," Frieden said.
That includes the myth that you can actually get the flu from the flu shot.
"There's no way," Frieden said. But, "we know that misinformation spreads more rapidly than the flu."
50 percent targeted
Health officials and vaccine manufacturers have been working quickly to make, test and distribute the vaccine since the virus emerged in the spring. The FDA approved the vaccine several weeks ago after clinical trials.
Certain people will be targeted first: people 6 months to 24 years, those who care for infants under 6 months, pregnant women, health care workers, emergency personnel, and those with chronic underlying conditions.
Those target groups represent half the U.S. population, making it "potentially the largest mass-vaccination program in human history," Howard Markel, a professor of medical history at the University of Michigan, told the Washington Post.
The first shipments already are on the way. But those first doses will be in nasal spray form, which can't be used by everyone, including some of the targeted populations. The CDC said the first doses likely will be given to health care workers. The injectable form of the vaccine becomes available at the end of the month.
Fears to be overcome
Most states, including Florida, are reporting widespread swine flu, according to the CDC. Local public health and private providers are gearing up.
Ryan Pedigo, director for public health preparedness in Hillsborough County, said the department plans to send teams out to schools, targeting the most at-risk groups first. The effort will involve everyone in the department, along with community volunteers. Pedigo said area medical and nursing students will be among those helping out. "This is what public health is about," he said.
Yet to be decided: whether vaccinations will be given out during school hours.
"Obviously, we want the least amount of disruption on school as possible," he said.
Pedigo said colleges and universities, private schools and day care centers in the county have asked to have the vaccine available at their sites.
The Pinellas County Health Department also plans to administer the vaccine at schools and is deciding how it will be done. Hernando County already has announced the vaccine will be available at two schools, but only on weekends.
But if they bring it, will people come?
Health officials expect to hear many of the same reasons people give for not getting the seasonal flu vaccine — that they never get sick, don't have time or don't like shots.
They'll hear concerns about how quickly it was made, and about the mercury-based preservative thimerosol, although there's no proof it's harmful in the small amounts found in vaccines. Then there are memories of the last time the government tried to protect the nation against swine flu, in 1976, when the hastily produced vaccine harmed more people than the virus itself.
Health officials have said repeatedly that the new H1N1 vaccine has been tested and found safe. "I want people to know that no corners have been cut at all," said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC.
But a Consumer Reports poll released last week found that just 34 percent of respondents plan to get the H1N1 vaccine, and only 35 percent of parents say they'll definitely have their children vaccinated.
New York health care workers have protested their state's vaccination mandate. The Washington State Nurses Association is suing a hospital company that's making workers get the vaccine or wear a surgical mask, or get fired.
Some Canadian health authorities have halted vaccination campaigns due to an unpublished Canadian study that suggests people who got a seasonal flu shot last year are twice as likely to catch swine flu. U.S. and Australian health officials say they've found no such issue.
Concerns by doctors
Charles Eckenrode, 56, plans to get the vaccine. The retired firefighter from Clearwater has heart problems, which puts him in the priority category to receive it.
A serious bout with pneumonia in 2006 led him to get the seasonal flu shot for the first time last year. He's confident the new H1N1 vaccine is safe. "The government wouldn't approve something that isn't," he said.
Betty Winebrenner of Dunedin thinks differently.
"I would be very scared to get it," the 62-year-old said. "I don't think it's been tested enough."
Even doctors aren't all on board. Dr. Carol Roberts, medical director of Wellness Works in Brandon, doesn't tell people not to get the vaccine. "It's a personal choice," she says.
But she's wary of the vaccination campaign. "I don't want the government telling me I have to vaccinate myself or my patients," she said.
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330