WHEN IT COMES to the swine flu vaccine, the message from state health officials remains confusing. On the one hand, they correctly warn that we shouldn't become complacent, that another wave of H1N1 infections is very likely. On the other hand, they still remain reluctant to publicly predict when the vaccine will be available to the general population.
The result is that many Californians seeking immunization don't know when they might be able to get a swine flu shot. That would have been acceptable in the spring when we first saw signs of the outbreak in North America. But at this point, public health officials should be doing a better job of providing forecasts.
Make no mistake. State and federal officials have taken the pandemic seriously and have worked quickly to try to curtail the number of outbreaks. To be fair, their work has been hampered because the vaccine took longer to manufacture than originally anticipated.
It made sense to provide vaccinations first to those most vulnerable: children, teens and young adults ages 6 months through 24 years; pregnant women; health care and day care providers; and those with chronic medical conditions that put them at higher risk for flu-related complications.
There is some good news elsewhere in the country. In some areas, the latest wave of the outbreak seems to be subsiding and the supply of the vaccine is sufficient that it is being made available to all.
But that is not the case in California. H1N1 continues to be a significant threat in the state and deaths are continuing. As Dr. Mark Horton, director of state Department of Public Health, puts it, we cannot let down our guard. "The main message here," he said Thursday, "is we consider this a significant threat here in California."
Moreover, state and federal health officials can't predict the timing of swine flu. Peaks in H1N1 cases have not followed the traditional seasonal flu calendar. We saw the first surge in the spring and summer. We're seeing another one now. And we are likely to see another after that, though we don't know when. Thus, it's certainly not too late to get vaccinated. And people shouldn't give up if they have to wait into 2010 to get a shot.
Although a few counties in the state have sufficient vaccine supply to serve the entire population, that is not the case in most of California. That leaves a large portion of state residents anxiously awaiting information on when and where to get their shots. They are told to check state and county health department Web sites for information.
At the local level, the response has varied by county, with some offering public clinics for the targeted populations while others rely on doctors to distribute shots to their patients. The result is a lot of confusion, and no help for members of the general population nor indication of when they should plan to get in line.
It's time to fix that. When we pushed, Dr. Gil Chavez, acting chief deputy director of the state health department, said that if the flow of vaccine continues at its current rate, it should be available for the general population sometime in January. That's a message that should be widely distributed by public health officials.
Otherwise, their own warnings against complacency will be undercut by public frustration.