When the swine flu vaccine was most scarce, health officials gave thousands of doses to corporate clinics at Walt Disney World, Toyota, defense contractors, oil companies and cruise lines, according to a USA TODAY review of vaccine distribution data from three states.
USA TODAY examined how state health departments distributed H1N1 vaccine after public outcry last month over Wall Street firms such as Goldman Sachs receiving doses while doctors and hospitals encountered shortages. The data show other companies got the vaccine in October and early November. In some cases, early doses went to people not deemed most at risk by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Now we have evidence of what my suspicions were," said U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., chair of a House health subcommittee. "I'm afraid when you have these corporate initiatives, it's not primarily needs-based."
Pallone said he would send the CDC a letter Tuesday asking it to revise guidelines to states on the use of corporate health clinics.
Each state health department must decide how to provide the vaccine to people most at risk, and employers are a legitimate venue, said Anne Schuchat, the CDC's immunization director. CDC's priority groups include pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions, health care workers and people ages 6 months to 24 years. "This is much less about what you do for a living and much more about how do you get the vaccine in the path of those target populations," she said.
The Toyota Family Health Center in San Antonio, which got 2,120 doses, initially focused on the CDC's priority groups, but since Nov. 16 has offered the vaccine to any employee, contractor or family member, spokesman Craig Mullenbach said.
Norwegian Cruise Line in Miami used its 300 doses "to vaccinate critical on-board staff on our ships," spokeswoman AnneMarie Mathews said. She said recipients included medical staff, youth counselors and "key officers responsible for the safe operation of the vessel" but did not address how the counselors and officers fit into CDC's priority groups.
Of the 2.42 million doses in Texas and 2 million in Florida distributed through mid-November, fewer than 1% went to employers, according to USA TODAY's analysis of data obtained under state open-records acts. Thousands of registered providers — doctors, hospitals, schools, pharmacies — in Texas alone got no doses in that period.
Among companies that requested and received early doses and say they administered them to high-risk people:
• Florida: Walt Disney World got 2,200 doses for college-age theme park workers and members of its 100-person medical team. Universal Orlando Resort got 100 doses.
• Texas: Defense contractors Bell Helicopter got 100 doses and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, 80. Chevron got 190; ExxonMobil, 160; Dow Chemical, 170; ConocoPhillips, 110.
• Georgia: No doses went to companies. Ravae Graham of the state health department said people in the priority groups "are typically only a small fraction of workers in the corporate sector."
California, New York and New York City are still deciding whether to release data to USA TODAY.
Corporate clout played no role, health officials said. "We're not playing favorites with Disney," said Dain Weister of the Orange County (Fla.) Health Department.
Carrie Williams of the Texas health department said, "We've been doing the very best we can to fairly distribute the vaccine to a wide variety of providers."
Complicating distribution decisions: Not all forms of vaccine are appropriate for all people. Nasal spray can be used only by healthy people and health care workers, and shots come in different doses.
"The question we have to ask on these corporate ones is: Did at-risk people receive the doses? Or was corporate America buying their way out of an illness?" asked Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who chairs a House oversight subcommittee. "You've almost got to look at them on a case-by-case basis."
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said there's no assurance that companies used the doses properly: "Everything is on the honor system," she said.