The first flu pandemic in more than 40 years brought anxiety and death globally and here at home in 2009. The H1N1 virus, which first emerged in Mexico in April, spread to more than 200 countries, infected millions and killed at least 11,516 people.
In Umatilla County, the death toll stands at three. Two of the victims, a 40-year-old woman and a young boy, had underlying health problems. The third, a Weston man, had no relationship with a healthcare provider, so little is known of his health challenges.
Despite the deaths, the most-feared scenarios have failed to materialize so far and the pandemic appears to be waning. Health officials, however, urge continued vigilance. The World Health Organization warns that the virus can still mutate and advises individuals and health organizations to guard against complacency.
The H1N1 virus seems to navigate by different rules than its brethren, homing in on younger people and leaving elderly people relatively untouched. Umatilla and Morrow County health officials grappled with how to disburse vaccine to people who needed it the most with the minimum of confusion. As H1N1 pervaded the state, they listened to daily H1N1 briefings by state director Dr. Mel Kohn and planned accordingly. The departments held clinics and funneled other vaccine to doctor's offices, hospitals and school-based health centers. Umatilla County chose to hold three large-scale vaccination clinics in Pendleton, Hermiston and Milton-Freewater. The vaccine trickled in slower than expected, and as the date of the first clinic drew near, Umatilla County Public Health Administrator Genni Lehnert worried that demand would outpace supply.
"It's coming off the manufacturing line very slowly," Lehnert said prior to the clinic in November. "We're trying to vaccinate with the few crumbs coming off the line, when we truly need the loaf of bread."
Lehnert and others in a multi-agency planning group decided to limit access to those with the highest risk - very young children, pregnant women and children and adults 25 to 64 with underlying health conditions.
Vaccine is now streaming into Oregon and the state is encouraging everyone to get "the gift that keeps on giving."
"Vaccination is the best protection against the H1N1 virus, which is still here and could peak again at any time," said Kohn. "Not only will the vaccine keep people from getting sick, it will help them avoid unwittingly spreading H1N1 virus to others."