Nationwide Flu Outbreak Leads To 5C Vaccine Shortage

Graphic by TSL Staff

Hospitals and health centers around the nation are struggling to combat this year’s most common flu strain, H3N2 — which has been particularly infectious and damaging — and Claremont is no exception.

Student Health Services announced on its website Jan. 24 that “flu vaccinations are no longer available at SHS and availability at local pharmacies is low.”

“The recent flu outbreak [depleted] supplies of the flu vaccine nationally,” which contributed to the vaccine shortage at SHS, wrote Denise Hayes, The Claremont Colleges Services vice president of student affairs, in an email to TSL.

To compensate for the shortage, SHS identified local pharmacies, Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, and the Los Angeles County Public Health Department as potential suppliers of the vaccine.

Since students returned to campus from winter break, there have been 15 cases of students with flu-like symptoms at SHS, Hayes said. In 2017, during the same time period, SHS saw five students; in 2016 there was only one student.

Yurie Heard PO ’20 said she struggled to get a SHS appointment because it was fully booked.

Her symptoms began with a fever Jan. 25, and eventually she became “really lethargic and couldn’t get out of bed.”

“I wanted to be seen [by SHS] while my symptoms were peaking so I could get the [medication] that I needed,” she said. However, by the time she got the appointment Feb. 2, she had missed a full week of classes and the worst of her symptoms had passed.

Two weeks later, Heard said she still feels congested.

Pomona College biology professor Sharon Stranford, who specializes in immunology, credited the severity of this flu outbreak to a “particularly nasty strain that mutates rapidly,” making vaccines less effective.

Stranford said the creation of next season’s flu vaccine is somewhat of a guessing game. During the flu season, the virus mutates into a different strain, she said. Based on worldwide flu trends, scientists can anticipate the strain of influenza that will be most prevalent in the coming winter.

The H3N2 vaccine in particular “[is] never quite as effective as the other vaccines,” Stranford said, because “the virus mutates in people as it moves from person to person, but it also mutates in culture” when researchers are generating the vaccine.

These mutations lead to a less effective vaccine, because “the version that came out after culturing wasn’t 100 percent identical to the version that we put into the culture, so we may not be vaccinating against exactly the same proteins that we were hoping,” she said.

The flu has spread around the world, but it has hit California especially hard, Stranford said. According to a press release from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, there have already been 158 influenza-associated deaths in Los Angeles County as of Feb. 2, compared to a total of 80 during the entire flu season last year.

Flu hospitalizations are also up statewide. The number of hospitalizations “reached peak levels higher than any measured since at least the 2009 [swine flu] pandemic,” a spokesperson from the California Department of Public Health wrote in an email to TSL.

According to the CDPH, the flu seems to be past its peak, but the virus’ severity is still abnormally high.

At the Pomona Valley Medical Center, a local hospital that serves the 5Cs, “we were seeing almost double the volume that we would normally see,” said Urgent Care Medical Director Stefan Reynoso. “At the peak, 25 percent of our patients had the flu.”

Stranford cautioned students to wash their hands regularly and be wary of sharing “things that could harbor the virus.” This even includes pens and pencils, she said.

It is also “definitely not too late to get a flu shot,” Stranford said. When getting a flu shot, “[you are] protecting more than just yourself. Especially on a campus setting, where we’re all in close contact, one or two fewer cases can make a big difference.”

This story was updated on Feb. 11 to reflect that antibiotics are not used to treat influenza.