With a citywide schools vaccination program to combat swine flu just days away, Baltimore officials are concerned about the low number of consent forms they have received from parents.
Of 80,000 forms sent home last week, just 1,800 have been returned, the city's top health and school officials said Wednesday during an event with Mayor Sheila Dixon to announce the program that aims to vaccinate schoolchildren during the next month.
Officials said other forms have probably been signed and are en route to the city, and that some students have already gotten the vaccine from their family doctor or a public clinic. But they stressed that children are in the target group for vaccination because they are among the most vulnerable to the H1N1 virus and among the hardest hit.
The officials said the vast majority recover from the flu. But swine flu has killed two children in Maryland - including Montebello Elementary/Middle School student Destinee Parker, a 14-year-old with no underlying health problem, whose father and stepmother were at a news conference to urge vaccination. About 1,000 children have died from swine flu across the country, and half of those hospitalized are children.
Dixon said she knows that some parents are reluctant to get the vaccine for their children, though local and federal officials insist that it's made the same way as the seasonal flu vaccine and is safe. It is also the only way to stem the pandemic.
"The flu is widespread in Maryland and in Baltimore," Dixon said. "We want to make sure we touch every community in the city."
The city will begin offering vaccines to about 450 special-needs students on Friday and the general population of school students on Monday. Private schools were invited to participate in the program.
Interim Baltimore Health Commissioner Olivia D. Farrow said parents will be given three days' notice when a clinic will be held at their child's school so they can ensure attendance. The clinics will be scheduled according to how many consent forms a school has and its proximity to other schools so officials can efficiently handle a few clinics in a day.
While the mayor said the vaccination program would last about a month, Farrow and Dr. Anne Bailowitz, the city's acting chief medical officer, said they depend on the federal government for vaccine and distribution has been behind schedule.
Bailowitz said the city has ordered about 20,000 doses and has received less than half that number. More seem to be arriving daily, however.
The state, which distributes the vaccine to the city and counties, has been able to order about 578,600 doses. That's far short of the 2.9 million people in the target groups, according to the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Baltimore schools chief Andr?s Alonso said the schools have been trying to send a message that children with flu symptoms should stay home. That has translated into a drop in average attendance of about 1.5 percent so far this flu season, he said.
James and Deirdre Parker, the father and stepmother of Destinee Parker, spoke about Destinee's death, which occurred a week before the vaccine began arriving.
"I always planned to get the seasonal flu vaccine," Deirdre Parker said. "I didn't know about H1N1. ... I would have taken whatever precaution I could have taken."
The death has been a call to action at Destinee's school, said Camille Bell, principal of Montebello Elementary/Middle School, which Destinee's two sisters still attend. Many students have been vaccinated and consent forms were coming in at a high rate.
Deirdre Parker said she hoped to form a foundation to advocate for vaccination in Destinee's name.
The city will also use some of its doses at public clinics where children and other members of priority groups who are city residents can get a vaccination, including a clinic from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 400 Cathedral St. and another from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Mt. Pleasant Church and Ministries at 6000 Radecke Ave. The clinics are first-come, first-served, and vaccinations are free. Other priority groups include pregnant women, those with underlying health conditions, those who care for infants and health care workers.