Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt threatens to withhold state money from flu vaccine provider

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has continued an open confrontation with federal officials by bringing his vaccine-policy complaints to a meeting with a senior U.S. general at the Pentagon, and by publicly challenging plans to…

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt threatens to withhold state money from flu vaccine provider

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has continued an open confrontation with federal officials by bringing his vaccine-policy complaints to a meeting with a senior U.S. general at the Pentagon, and by publicly challenging plans to use nasal sprays for potential soldiers’ accidental exposure to the flu.

Two weeks ago, Stitt’s spokesman told a doctor at a Capitol Hill hearing that the governor and his senior staff would “take care of” a researcher at the Oklahoma Public Health Department to assure that enough vaccine is available at the peak of the upcoming flu season. The reaction forced an agency spokesman to ask the governor to set up a “personnel matter” call, which remained inconclusive.

On Wednesday, with the House Armed Services Committee in session, the governor told Pentagon Undersecretary Pat Shanahan about his interest in opposing a dose-boosting nasal spray vaccine that is expected to become available for soldiers next year and that is currently being pushed by a Pentagon official on the Hill. If the flu vaccine used in the government’s next effort to augment the effectiveness of the current shot, known as FluMist, is not in a state of readiness, as the Pentagon has promised it will be, military officials have told lawmakers, those soldiers who might be exposed to flu during deployment can use a nasal spray.

“We will take care of them,” Stitt told the Pentagon general, while responding to a question from North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker, the GOP chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee that oversees the Department of Defense’s budget.

In an interview later Wednesday, Stitt said his state health department has not reviewed the guidelines for the nasal spray shot, and the governor has not received an official response to his review from the Pentagon.

“Obviously this sends a strong message,” said Stitt, who is not a doctor. “There’s no sense in showing up, and putting this much effort, unless you’re going to be sure this is going to happen. I trust the commander on this issue to tell me no. I trust the military. I’m sure they’re going to tell me what the facts are.”

Stitt said Oklahoma is in the bottom half of the country when it comes to vaccination rates for its population. He cited a state Center for Disease Control study that stated a lack of awareness about flu shots as a reason why the state’s vaccination rate of 70 percent is low. Stitt said it’s his task to seek better information and work with the Defense Department to ensure that Oklahoma gets the vaccine available.

“Ultimately, it’s my job to ensure the funding is there and we are on plan. If the facts are different, we’ll correct that,” he said.

Stitt also began questioning Pentagon plans to use nasal sprays to protect troops from the flu as well as the same flu strains in clinical trials using a flu mist that lawmakers argue would be a poor vehicle for an inoculation given the cloudy visibility in some areas of the country. Stitt on Wednesday expressed concern that the nasal spray could slow soldiers’ response in an emergency, while he worried that young children and pregnant women would be unable to fully receive the vaccine.

Stitt said the proposal for the nasal spray “is a major concern” to him.

His posture toward the Pentagon has contrasted with his stance toward federal officials on a separate issue, namely whether federal health officials would want to let a state governor withhold state funds from a flu shot provider after a state official criticized vaccines. The administration has asked state officials to hold a series of forums on the issue, but the governor has balked at inviting the government to attend.

“We just have better stuff to talk about,” Stitt said.

On the issue of the nasal spray vaccine, the governor said he hoped to hear from military officials about vaccine progress that he believes the Pentagon leaders do not believe. Stitt said the Pentagon has stated it will have a vaccine available for federal personnel that has been tested, with earlier observations that there is scientific data to warrant the further development of an earlier kind of flu vaccine. Stitt indicated he supports developing a better version of the current vaccine by working with scientists in university and private labs.

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