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Members Urge Donation of Flu Vaccines

Angered over media reports that Attending Physician John Eisold had recommended flu shots to all Members of Congress despite a nationwide shortage, several lawmakers publicly criticized the Hill’s top doctor Wednesday and requested that his office distribute its remaining vaccine supply to local health departments.

The criticisms — which include allegations that the office is maintaining a surplus of vaccinations during a national shortage — contrast sharply with assertions the Attending Physician’s Office made to Roll Call last week, when an Eisold spokesman said the office had received only a “small portion” of the vaccine it had ordered.

Nevertheless, in letters to Eisold on Wednesday, House and Senate Members, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), questioned the physician’s reported distribution plans, which recommended all lawmakers receive the vaccination.

“As communities nationwide struggle to meet the need for extra doses of the flu vaccine, Members of Congress and their staffs should not be given special treatment,” Pelosi wrote.

The individual letters also suggested the Attending Physician’s Office is violating guidelines issued by by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by offering the vaccine to relatively healthy Members.

“Your view that every member of Congress should obtain a flu vaccination, regardless of priority, is at odds with the emergency regulations issued by the District of Columbia Department of Health, the CDC guidelines and the Administration’s guidelines,” Norton wrote.

A spokesman for the Attending Physician’s Office did not return a telephone call Wednesday, but acknowledged in an earlier interview that Members are typically encouraged to seek the vaccination because of their frequent travel and public appearances: “It cuts down on [the possibility of] an epidemic here,” the spokesman said.

Earlier this month, however, the office did in fact adopt the CDC guidelines, which recommend vaccinations be limited to “high risk” individuals, such as the elderly, children and the chronically ill.

But the Attending Physician’s Office, which serves thousands of employees — in addition to lawmakers, the office offers vaccinations to all Capitol Hill employees, including Congressional staff and maintenance and service employees — does not require patients to prove their qualifications before being administered the flu vaccinations.

“If a person says, ‘I’m high risk,’ we don’t ask, they get it,” the spokesman said, and later added: “We don’t go in asking because we don’t have their medical records. It’s a trust thing.”

Norton and other lawmakers encouraged Eisold to allocate any surplus of vaccinations to area health departments.

“For humanitarian reasons and as a matter of good medicine to help prevent an epidemic here in the District of Columbia, where the spread of the flu to Capitol staff and visitors would be most likely to occur,” Norton wrote, “I would appreciate a transfer of available vaccines to the D.C. Department of Health by your office.”

It is not clear, however, whether a surplus actually exists. During the 2003 flu season, the office distributed approximately 8,500 vaccinations. Eisold told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that he expects nearly 3,000 shots to be administered this year.

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