Fire chief lends his face, and nose, to supporting H1N1 FluMist vaccine

Las Vegas Fire Chief Greg Gammon has been the face of the Fire Department many times, but Thursday was the first time he was the face of the H1N1 FluMist vaccine.

Media outlets were notified Thursday morning that Gammon would be receiving the inhaled H1N1 vaccine at the Southern Nevada Health District on Shadow Lane, with photo opportunities available.

The event was held to ease misconceptions about the safety of the H1N1 FluMist vaccine, which has been anything but a success among emergency first responders in Las Vegas so far.

“We’re trying to show the city of Las Vegas that the Fire Department is in support (of the inhaled vaccine) and is encouraging staff to get vaccinated against H1N1,” said Lawrence Sands, the health district’s chief health officer.

As of Thursday morning, only about 1,500 FluMist vaccinations had been given at the district, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Bethel. The initial shipment of vaccinations to Clark County was 20,600, she said.

The first vaccinations have been made available to priority groups. They include household contacts and caregivers of young infants, children age 2 to 4, and health care and emergency medical personnel with direct patient contact.

On the first day of availability, last Saturday, only 326 vaccinations were given, including a dozen or fewer of the 550 emergency first responders with the Las Vegas Fire Department.

The issue may not be indifference, according to some officials.

“I know I’m leery about a live virus going into me,” department spokesman Tim Szymanski said earlier this week.

Gammon said it’s not mandatory for employees to get flu vaccinations, but it is strongly suggested.

“As chief, I want to show we have all the confidence in the world,” Gammon said. “I get my flu shot every year. I look forward to it. All I can do is encourage (other firefighters) to do the same.”

The nasal vaccine is made of a weakened live virus, tamed in the laboratory so it cannot cause illness, Sands said. It is only available for those between the ages of 2 and 49 with no underlying or chronic medical conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, and who are not pregnant.

Measles and chicken pox vaccines also are made from a weakened live virus.

Sprayed into the nose, the flu vaccine multiplies on the mucous membranes in the nose and throat, triggering the body’s immune response without causing any sickness.

The injectable flu vaccine, which contains a dead virus, will be made available to the priority groups this Saturday.

Because the vaccine distribution will be close to 50 percent FluMist and 50 percent injectable, health officials are concerned eligible candidates for the FluMist will wait for the injectable vaccine instead, possibly creating a shortage.

“The point is, there’s a finite supply of the vaccine, and we’re trying to be strategic,” Sands said.

By placing the fire chief in the spotlight, health officials are hoping the general public will realize that there is no danger from the FluMist vaccine, he said.

“There are just a lot of misconceptions out there. It’s made the same way as the seasonal flu. It’s inactivated and can’t cause infection.”

Despite reassurance from many parties, not everyone is convinced.

On Thursday, one man approached the front desk to inquire about receiving an H1N1 flu shot.

When he was told only the FluMist was being administered, he left the building.

Tom Skinner, spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said people need to trust reliable sources of information about the FluMist vaccine.

“At the end of the day, people have a choice if they want to get the injectable kind or the mist,” Skinner said. “The mist is safe.”

Asked if there are concerns over a potential shortage if the FluMist is rejected in favor of the injectable vaccine, Skinner said he doesn’t anticipate a problem.

“There should be lots of vaccines out there for everybody,” he said.

And if the FluMist vaccine continues to be under-utilized in Nevada, Sands said there is the possibility of redistribution through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Sands doesn’t anticipate that.

“I feel pretty comfortable with where we are.”

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at or 702-383-0283.