Some inmates will get flu shots despite shortages

Wednesday, October 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:43 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

Norman Cooper has been unable to find a flu shot for his wife, who takes daily oxygen treatments for asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.

So he was incensed to learn that some inmates in the state prison 30 miles down the road were getting flu shots.

“I don’t think they should get flu shots over citizens who are at high risk,” Cooper said. “They’re being treated like first-class citizens, and we are second-class citizens.”

Federal and state prison officials say the inmates getting the shots are also high-risk — either 65 and over or suffering from a chronic medical condition. They say it’s the surest way to fend off a flu epidemic inside the prisons that could be costly to taxpayers.

Cooper’s distress over the situation is just one example of the difficulty of fairly distributing the nation’s short supply of flu vaccine.

The government estimates there are 98 million people at high risk of flu complications, and expects to have a little more than half of that number of flu shots.

The Missouri prison system’s medical services contractor, Correctional Medical Services, got 8,780 of the 9,460 doses it had requested, said spokesman Ken Fields. And he said all of those shots have already been given to high-risk inmates as well as some high-risk staffers who have direct contact with them.

“By being proactive about this, we hope to keep inmates from having to be housed in outside hospitals,” said John Fougere, corrections spokesman.

Meanwhile, Cooper and thousands of others have spent countless hours calling doctors and health departments seeking flu shots. Cooper, who lives in Scott City in southeast Missouri, says his 64-year-old wife was hospitalized in June and was warned that a cold or the flu could be fatal.

While prison populations often have infectious outbreaks like staph infections or hepatitis, no corrections officials could recall a serious outbreak of flu among an inmates.

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