With only 3,700 doses of flu vaccine available in the entire county, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept. has cancelled plans to offer flu shots to the public through distribution clinics.

In an effort to target those at highest risk of catching the flu virus, the community flu coalition, an alliance of clinics, doctor’s offices and the health department, announced Oct. 27 that they would only distribute the vaccinations directly through health care providers.

Individual physicians’ offices will then determine which of their patients are at the greatest risk for severe complications, hospitalization or death from the flu and contact them directly to schedule an appointment for vaccination.

Susan Forkush, director of health education at the county public health department, said the people at the highest risk of catching the flu are those over the age of 75 with chronic illnesses, and those with medical conditions compromising their immune systems, such as AIDS or cystic fibrosis.

“The whole goal is to make sure that the people with the greatest risk get the flu vaccine,” Forkush said.

Forkush said doctors would have the vaccines by sometime next week, but she said local residents whose health is not seriously threatened by the flu should not expect to get a shot.

“We encourage people not to call them,” she said. “If you are at risk, your health care provider will get in contact with you directly. People who aren’t at the highest risk will not receive the flu vaccine this year.”

Forkush said a survey was sent out via e-mail and fax to 400 doctors’ offices in Santa Barbara County to see if they were in need of vaccine doses. She said 75 offices responded to the survey, but they only received approximately 10 to 20 percent of the amount they had requested, due to the limited supply.

“Decisions were then made at the Public Health Dept. by looking at the numbers they gave us, the overall size of the practice, the type of practice and what they reported they needed.” Forkush said.

Forkush said community clinics will remain closed this season and the health department is unsure if they will get a new supply of vaccines for this season. Forkush said the federal government is trying to procure more doses of vaccine for many states to be distributed at the county level, but she said nothing is definite at this point.

“Doctors have agreed to use the vaccinations only on the highest risk groups, and they will have to make decisions to give the vaccines based on an individual basis,” Forkush said.

Forkush said she recommends taking precautions in order to avoid the flu, which include washing hands frequently and staying home from work or school if you think you may have contracted the virus. She said those over 65 should ask their doctors if it is appropriate for them to get vaccinated.

The Public Health Dept. has established a toll-free Flu Vaccine Information Line at (866) 464-0383, and it has encouraged the public to call this number for local information about the flu vaccine situation.