Thousands of Flu Vaccine Doses Unused, Costing Tax Dollars

Health departments want to keep you free of the flu, and each year they spend your tax dollars purchasing vaccines. But an NBC 5 Investigates analysis of three years' worth of flu vaccine data from the city and suburbs revealed thousands of doses went unused.

During the 2011-2012, 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 flu seasons, Chicago area health departments purchased 135,252 flu vaccines. A total of 14,742 doses were wasted or expired, according to public records. Individual vaccines typically expire several months after a flu season is expected to end.  

However, some health departments argue doses may go unused because there are more locations for the public to choose from to receive their flu shots, including doctors’ offices or pharmacy clinics.

The flu is one of the biggest threats to public health. It killed 100 people in Illinois during the 2013-2014 flu season and sent 784 people to hospitals, according to the Illinois Department of Health.

Medical professionals insist there is still time to receive a flu shot. The Cook County Department of Public Health recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu vaccine and that people with flu symptoms stay home 24 hours after the fever is gone (without the use of a fever-reducing medicine) to help curb the spread of illness.

Recent history shows the message appears to be getting through to the public in McHenry County. The public health department reports it has used every flu vaccine it has purchased during the past three flu seasons. McHenry County’s public health department ranks first in our analysis for how little vaccine is wasted.

“We try to plan things so that we’ve got enough vaccines but not too much and we start as early as the supply allows to start to make sure people are protected early,” said Michael Hill of the McHenry County Department of Health.

Records show the Chicago Health Department uses most of its flu vaccines. It holds numerous flu shot clinics.

“We educate the public on how important it is to get the vaccine,” said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Julie Morita. “We encourage them to seek it out.”

Flu shot usage varies by county. According to information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, the DuPage County Health Department reported 41 percent of its flu vaccines went unused during the past three flu seasons. But the county said it returns unused flu vaccines and receives $7.50 per package back in excise taxes.

Flu vaccine costs range from about $10 to about $20 a dose. The unused vaccines may have cost Chicago area taxpayers at least $147,000 since 2011. However, some departments said they return expired vaccines to the manufacturers for partial or full credit toward future vaccines.

The Illinois Department of Public Health does not require local health departments to report their usage numbers. A spokesperson said while the state works with local departments and shares best practices, there are no plans for increased oversight of the vaccines bought by individual health departments.

“It certainly makes sense for a state to look into the use of the vaccine to determine if there’s any guidance that they might be able to provide to improve usage,” said Dr. Mark Dworkin of the UIC School of Public Health.

In addition to getting vaccinated, residents are urged to practice the three C’s to help reduce the spread of illness. Clean: Properly wash your hands frequently. Cover: Cover your cough and sneeze. Contain: Contain your germs by staying home if you are sick.

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