Smallpox vaccine arrives in Vermont

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(Host) Two-thousand doses of the smallpox vaccine have arrived in Vermont. The state is among the first to receive the vaccine. It’s intended for health care workers who volunteer to participate in a plan to defend the country against the threat of bioterrorism.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) The Health Department says the vaccine is being stored in an undisclosed location. Health Commissioner Jan Carney says the first vaccinations will be administered as early as next week.

(Carney) “Four Vermont Department of Health workers will be the first to be vaccinated. And these nurses will then vaccinate other public health and health care workers.”

(Zind) Carney says the plan to vaccinate up to 2,000 health care workers in Vermont is on schedule. The volunteers would be inoculated over the next several months. They would include emergency room staff and other front line medical personnel who could be called on in the case of a smallpox outbreak. The vaccination plan has been controversial outside of Vermont.

The American Nurses Association has called on the government to delay the program. In Massachusetts, the state nurses association has advised members not to volunteer for the shots. And in dozens of hospitals around the country, medical staffs have decided not to take part in the program.

So far there’s been no such resistance in Vermont. The state nurses association says at the moment, it’s not making any recommendations to its members.

And so far, all of Vermont’s hospitals are going along with the plan. The state has asked each hospital to come up with a specific number of volunteers. The Rutland Regional Medical Center was asked to identify 95 medical personnel who are willing to be vaccinated. Anne Ruby is infection control nurse for the hospital. Ruby is coordinator of the medical center’s smallpox vaccination program.

(Ruby) “I don’t think we’re going to get close to ninety-five, personally.”

(Zind) Ruby says the problem won’t be a lack of willing volunteers. She says that once people are screened for potential adverse reactions to the vaccine, the pool of volunteers might be small.

Ruby says some medical center staff have expressed concerns about the possible health effects from the vaccine for volunteers, their patients and their families. Ruby says there are also unresolved questions about how to compensate people who miss work because of the vaccine’s side effects.

(Ruby) “I think the legal questions are the ones we’re struggling with the most. Does the hospital people need to cover people if they’re out? Do they need to take their own personal time if they end up sick and are out? We want crystal clear answers to ‘what if this’ and ‘what if that.'”

(Zind) Health Commissioner Jan Carney says the department is working with hospitals to resolve these issues. Carney expects a high percentage of qualified people will volunteer to be vaccinated in Vermont.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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