HODGDON, Maine — A number of Aroostook County schools are taking steps to inoculate their students against the seasonal flu while also exploring the best way to start out on a new venture — vaccinating students against the H1N1 virus.
County schools are among the earliest in the state to go back in session, many starting in mid-August in anticipation of a September break for the potato harvest. They have not begun administering the vaccines to students, however, because the more than 200,000 doses of seasonal flu vaccine that are on the way to the state have not yet arrived.
The call for inoculation went out earlier this year after state officials revealed that they anticipate an increase in the spread of the H1N1 swine flu virus this fall and winter. Officials believe that protecting children against seasonal flu will decrease the likelihood that they will become seriously ill if they contract H1N1 before a vaccine for that virus is available.
Schools are not mandated to vaccinate students, but most school systems are participating in the program, David Connerty-Marin, director of communications for the Department of Education, said Tuesday. Those schools have agreed to set up on-site flu vaccine clinics shortly after school starts.
The Education Department had speculated that some County schools could begin inoculating against the seasonal flu on Tuesday, but the vaccine did not arrive in time.
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press conference Monday that the state hopes to enlist more schools in the effort to vaccinate all Maine children against seasonal flu and H1N1. Most Maine schools already have agreed to participate, she said, but a list of those schools will not be available for several days.
The state is prepared to help schools with planning and organizing their large-scale clinics, she said, and to use federal stimulus funds to purchase supplies such as syringes and alcohol swabs as well as equipment such as refrigerators to keep vaccine supplies safe and effective.
The Maine CDC has purchased about 200,000 pediatric doses of vaccine against seasonal flu — enough for all of the approximately 180,000 school-age children in Maine with enough left over for younger children.
The Maine CDC, Department of Education and Maine Emergency Management Agency will coordinate and facilitate the implementation of school-supported vaccine clinics for both the seasonal flu and H1N1.
Schools will be sending home permission slips that parents can sign if they want their children to participate.
Some schools may begin their vaccination clinics over the next two to three weeks, but a portion of those are likely to wait to combine seasonal flu shots with H1N1 vaccinations.
This is the first time in 18 years that there have been statewide vaccinations in Maine schools, according to Mills.
The 200,000 doses of seasonal flu vaccine are free of thimerosal, a preservative that contains mercury and is thought by some people to be associated with autism and other neurological problems.
When the H1N1 vaccine becomes available, some doses will be supplied in single doses without thimerosal, Mills said, but most of the supply will be delivered in multidose vials that will contain the preservative. The thimerosal-free doses of H1N1 vaccine will be reserved for pregnant women and very young children, she said. About 180,000 doses of H1N1 vaccine are expected to arrive in Maine in October, followed by about 80,000 additional doses each week.
Initial vaccine supplies will be used for pregnant women and other vulnerable populations. Mills said the new H1N1 vaccine is being developed in an “identical way” to the seasonal flu vaccine.
“There is no reason to think the H1N1 vaccine is going to be any riskier than the seasonal vaccine,” she said.
Asked if her own youngsters would get the new H1N1 vaccine when it is available, Mills said, “I certainly hope so,” adding that she is herself not in a priority group and likely will be among the last Mainers to get the vaccine.
While most Mainers will get the H1N1 vaccine for free, Mills said some people may have to pay a small administrative fee, probably not more than $5.
In Aroostook County, most school districts this week still were planning how best to vaccinate students against the seasonal flu and the H1N1 swine flu virus.
“We are getting set up to do it,” Robert McDaniel, superintendent of SAD 70 in Hodgdon, said Tuesday. “We are looking to vaccinate students against the seasonal flu first and then see if we can get the H1N1 vaccines done in October.”
McDaniel said the district just sent out the required permission slips and has another planning meeting set up next week to decide more details related to the inoculation process.
A short distance away in Houlton, Superintendent Steve Fitzpatrick said SAD 29 also was still “in the planning stages,” but the district will be participating in the inoculation effort. He said he was not yet sure if the district would combine seasonal flu shots with H1N1 vaccinations.
In Easton, Superintendent Frank Keenan said Tuesday that the School Department already had sent out permission slips and plans to offer both vaccines, likely in separate clinics in the fall.
In Fort Kent, SAD 27 Superintendent Patrick O’Neill said his district also was participating. He said school nurses in the St. John Valley met Tuesday to discuss the best way to get the vaccines distributed to all who want them.
The same was true in SAD 42, which serves students from Mars Hill and Blaine as well as tuitioned students from Bridgewater and E Plantation.
“We are also still working on how exactly we are going to do this,” Superintendent Roger Shaw said Tuesday. “We have not sent out permission slips yet, but we will do so in the next day or so.”
Shaw said the district would like to inoculate students against the seasonal flu by harvest break later this month. He anticipated that the H1N1 vaccinations would be distributed in October or November.
Connerty-Marin acknowledged Tuesday that many school districts were concerned about potential liability related to participation in vaccination clinics.
To remedy the situation, Gov. John E. Baldacci on Tuesday signed a Proclamation of Civil Emergency Due to a Highly Infectious Agent to allow the state to better respond to the potential dangers of H1N1 flu and to facilitate a statewide vaccination campaign.
BDN writer Meg Haskell contributed to this report.