ATLANTA — Afraid millions of doses will go to waste, the government all but dropped its restrictions on the flu vaccine Thursday, encouraging states with ample supplies to offer shots to anyone who wants one.
The vaccine shortage from last fall has turned into a surplus because the flu season has been mild and because many people were scared off by the prospect of long lines at clinics.
As a result, the government has been backing away from restrictions that said flu shots should be reserved for elderly people, babies and those with chronic medical conditions.
The government stopped just short of dropping all restrictions Thursday. Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that is because there still are parts of the country that do not have enough vaccine.
"The CDC's broad goal in all of this is to try to make the best use of the vaccine doses that we have," she said. "The reason why we are not opening this up nationally is because the mismatch between supply and demand is very much a local issue. The people who know best how to manage their situation is the local agency."
Gerberding did not specify which states still have shortages, and a CDC spokesman was unable to provide details.
More than half of the states have already dropped all their restrictions, and public officials have been urging the federal government to do the same.
Hawaii and Pennsylvania are among the few states that say they do not have enough flu shots for the general public to ease their restrictions.
Flu vaccine is newly formulated each season. Leftover vaccine cannot be saved and used later.
The CDC also is taking other steps to make sure flu shots are not wasted, including "loaning" its stockpile of 3.1 million doses to flu shot maker Sanofi Pasteur. That way the manufacturer can continue to fill orders for flu shots. The company will reimburse the CDC for the use of the stockpiled shots, Gerberding said.
In addition, the CDC on Thursday began allowing state health agencies to use the 1.4 million flu shots remaining from the government's Vaccines for Children program for others who need it. That is because most of the children in the government vaccination program have already been immunized against the flu, Gerberding said.
The government first eased its restrictions last month, when it started allowing shots for healthy adults as young as 50.
The restrictions were imposed after the shutdown of a plant in England cut U.S. flu vaccine supply in half.
As of mid-January, however, only 10 states have reported widespread flu activity. The flu season typically runs into April.