Less than two months after the state restricted distribution of flu vaccine to only high-risk individuals, Michigan health officials will lift the emergency order tomorrow.

The shortage, caused by the withdrawal of half the U.S. vaccine supply, forced officials from the Michigan Department of Community Health to instruct health care institutions to ration and redistribute the viable shots only to those at high risk of dying from the flu. Distributing the vaccine to low-risk individuals was a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $200 fine.

Although officials can no longer impose penalties for administering the vaccine, the University Health Service will continue to restrict its distribution to those deemed most vulnerable to the disease, UHS Director Robert Winfield said.

“While the health department has removed all restrictions … we’re going to try to continue to focus in on the individuals who are still high-risk,” he added.

However, UHS will be “liberalizing the concept of high risk” by offering the vaccine to some individuals who were previously excluded from the category, Winfield added.

For instance, a person who lived with a patient suffering from an immune system disorder could have been punished for receiving a dose under the previous public health order, while the same person would now be able to receive it from UHS.

Those eligible to receive the flu vaccine from UHS include people older than 50, young children of students and others with weak immune systems. Winfield added that UHS will turn away people it believes should not receive the vaccine.

UHS will continue with its revised evaluation of high-risk patients until it receives more word from the government officials, Winfield said.

“We’ll be looking for guidance from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the health department medical director,” he added.

UHS now has 200 doses of vaccine left of the 3,500 it started with.

Winfield said the remaining vaccines will likely be distributed at UHS’s Allergy Immunization and Travel Health Clinic, which is open Monday through Friday, 9 to 11:30 a.m. For students, the cost of a flu vaccination is included in the health fee that is paid along with tuition.

Winfield said UHS administered about 4,700 shots last year. This year, it gave out 1,600 to 1,700 shots and transferred about 1,000 to the University Hospital.

UHS also supplies the athletic department with vaccines for varsity athletes. This year, however, the department turned away the supply it normally buys from UHS.

The state’s announcement lifting the public health order comes at a time when the U.S. government deemed safe as many as 4 million doses of the vaccine manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline in Germany.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said yesterday the government was immediately buying 1.2 million doses of the vaccine, called Fluarix, and said GlaxoSmithKline had agreed to make about 3 million more doses available later.

Because Fluarix is not licensed for use in the country, it will be used as a trial drug, meaning it can be used only if patients sign a form acknowledging its potential risks.

 

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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