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A Mother’s Search For H1N1 Vaccinations



December 4th, 2009

I became a mother obsessed.      

It started in June, just days before my daughters, ages 12 and 10, were due to leave for summer camp. It waned a bit upon their return home, but returned full force with the start of the school year.

My name is Rita, and I was obsessed with H1N1.

I cover health for USA TODAY, and my colleagues and I have been writing about the pandemic since before it was a pandemic. Unlike most of the health topics I write about, this one got personal.

The son of a World Bank employee, who reportedly contracted swine flu in Mexico during the earliest days, attended my older daughter’s suburban Washington, D.C., middle school. We parents held our breath, fearful that even a single case of the flu would shut down the school for a week or two. Thankfully, though, the boy remained healthy. Still, I’m descended from a long line of worrier moms, and I was concerned about reports of previously healthy children dying from this new flu strain.

My daughters, who have no underlying conditions that would put them at risk for complications–poo, poo, poo– have received seasonal flu shots or nasal spray for several years now. I looked forward to the day–in early October, public health officials assured my fellow Americans and me–when I could get my kids immunized against H1N1.

Meanwhile, I held my breath.  My younger daughter caught a cold about 10 days before she was due to leave in June for her long-anticipated first stint at sleep-away camp. No fever, no lost appetite, no school or dive team practice missed–I knew it wasn’t the flu. Still, I worried that the camp would mistake her lingering cough for the dreaded swine flu. She was only going for 12 days. It would be a shame for her to miss 7 of them because of a misdiagnosis.

For days before she got on the camp bus, I plied her with hot tea and honey and cough drops. When the phone rang shortly after the girls’ bus was due to arrive at camp, my heart skipped a beat. Could it be the camp calling my husband and me to pick one or both up because (a) they’d been diagnosed with swine flu, (b) they’d been found to have head lice, the usual scourge of summer camps, or (c) both?

My older daughter and I had visited Ellis Island earlier in the year, and images of newly arrived immigrants being detained because they’d flunked a physical exam, a chalk letter signifying their ailment, ran through my head. Thankfully, though, the call wasn’t from my daughters’ camp, which managed to escape H1N1 this year.

The start of the school year brought new worries, but still, I was counting on getting my kids immunized against H1N1 well before the first grading period ended Oct. 30.

By the end of September, my entire family had received seasonal flu vaccine–my younger daughter at her elementary school, which for the first time offered students free FluMist; my husband and I at work; and my middle-schooler at Target one Saturday afternoon (nothing like squeezing in a bit of shopping with a flu shot). So far, so good.

By mid-October, I began calling our pediatrician’s office to check on the availability of the H1N1 vaccine. I heard that other practices were keeping patients’ parents posted via e-mail, but unfortunately, ours was doing it the old-fashioned way.

On the only day in October when our doctor’s office administered the H1N1 vaccine, my younger daughter was off on a day-long school field trip. But I remained optimistic. The doctor got one shipment; surely more would soon arrive.

Why Not A Swine Flu Version Of ‘Sabin Sundays’?

I kept calling, hoping that this would be the day the UPS guy or gal finally delivered additional vaccine doses to the pediatrician. I kept making–and breaking–appointments to get my girls immunized with vaccine that never came. Roberta, the receptionist I’ve known since my older daughter was a baby, bemoaned the fact that pediatricians were expected to administer the H1N1 vaccine at all. Why not set up Saturday clinics at high schools, she wondered.

Why not indeed? Despite my children’s youth, I’m old enough to remember lining up in my West Virginia elementary school gym, probably on a “Sabin Sunday” organized by the city health department in the early 1960s, to get a sugar cube laced with polio vaccine. And I remember lining up at the student health center in college to get the other, infamous swine flu vaccine.

Instead of Swine-Flu Sundays, though, we’ve had a patchwork distribution system, and high-risk individuals’ chances of getting the vaccine have depended on where they live, who their doctor is, and how lucky they are.

Although the National Institutes of Health is one of my neighbors, my county health department has been chronically short of H1N1 vaccine. And the handful of clinics it has held so far have all been on weekdays. Have I mentioned that Montgomery County, Maryland, covers nearly half as much land as the entire state of Rhode Island and boasts a population pushing 1 million?

I was not so desperate as to take my daughters out of school for nearly an entire day so I could schlep them to the first clinic, which ran from 9 a.m. to noon on a Thursday. After all, one driving force behind my quest was the fact that my daughters, bless them, can fall behind if they miss 20 minutes of school for an orthodontist appointment. I hated to see what would happen if they caught a mild case of the flu and had to miss an entire week, especially at the end of the grading period.

A Local School Flouts The County Health Department’s Vaccine Distribution Rules

I figured I could hold on until the first evening clinic, scheduled at three high schools from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. on Oct. 28, a Wednesday. The closest site was Rockville High School, 12.77 miles from our house, according to MapQuest. My husband, who gets off from work 2 1/2 hours earlier than I usually do, would whisk the girls off to Rockville as soon as they both got home from school at around 3:15. If they were still in line when I headed home from the office, I’d bring them dinner.

On my way to work that morning, I heard Ulder Tillman, the county health department director, on the local all-news radio station. She repeated the rules spelled out on her department’s H1N1 Web site: No one would be permitted on school property until 3:30.

So you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon Rockville High’s game plan, prominently displayed on its home page:

“Parents who want their students to be vaccinated may come to the school at the end of the school day (before 2:30 p.m.), park in the lot and stay in their cars until the clinic opens. After that the lot will be closed to the public entering. We will retain and supervise students who want to get the vaccine until 3:15 when we will allow them to get in line outside in the front of the school entrance. You may join them at that time.”

I checked the Web sites for the other two high schools at which H1N1 vaccine clinics were scheduled that day. Neither mentioned anything about giving students and their families priority status.

Incensed about Rockville High, I called the county flu hotline. The sympathetic woman who answered told me she’d notify her superiors, that Rockville High wasn’t playing by health department rules.

I wasn’t done. Although I’m far more comfortable conducting interviews, I became the interviewee after tipping off our weekly community newspaper, The Gazette (and let me point out that the health department spokeswoman’s comments in the article don’t jive at all with Rockville High’s elaborate plan to ensure its students moved to the head of the line).

By then it was too late for my kids, though. I called my husband and told him to forget trying to get them immunized that day. Each of the clinic sites had 1,000 doses. Rockville High has 1,200 students. You do the math.

Sure enough, at 4:30, the health department’s Web site announced that every dose at all three clinics had been claimed.

It was back to the Internet for me. I scoured the Web for H1N1 vaccine with the diligence I usually reserved for hunting down the latest coupons for my favorite online retailers. I discovered that, inexplicably, a few CVS drugstores in North Carolina had it. A colleague who hails from that state only half-jokingly noted that the drive down would probably require less time than waiting in line at a local clinic.

In Washington D.C., A Smaller Population Than Montgomery County But A Much Larger H1N1 Vaccine Stockpile

If there was a local clinic. Montgomery County, which had planned three more Wednesday clinics after the Rockville High fiasco, cancelled all of them for lack of vaccine. But listening to the all-news radio station paid off. I happened to hear a reporter interview a Washington, D.C., resident who was lined up at a clinic in nearby Cheverly, Maryland. It dawned on me: You don’t have to live in the jurisdiction that’s administering vaccine!

Washington, D.C., appeared to be rolling in vaccine, with multiple clinics scheduled several weeks in a row. Although the District of Columbia doesn’t even have two-thirds the population of Montgomery County, it had stocked up on thousands more doses of the H1N1 vaccine.

D.C., here we come, I told my husband. An 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. clinic at Washington’s Cardozo High School–less than half as far from our house as Rockville High–caught my eye. It was set for Halloween, a Saturday.

My husband woke the girls and me at 7. We threw on our clothes and headed to Cardozo. There was a line when we arrived at 7:50, but it wasn’t one of those round-the-block monsters. I knew immediately: This Halloween, our family’s best treats were going to be a couple of doses of nasal spray vaccine.

Now, Washington has a reputation for having less-than-optimal city services, but I’ve been singing the health department’s praises for a well-run vaccine clinic. I’ve heard of high-risk people standing for hours in the rain outside clinics in other parts of the country, but most of our wait was spent sitting in the high school auditorium. I briefly panicked and wondered if we should have lied about where we lived, but the folks staffing the clinic didn’t blink an eye when they saw our Maryland address on the permission forms.

After waiting just under 2 1/2 hours, we escorted the girls onto the auditorium stage for their vaccine. I don’t know if the clinic’s supply of 2,000 doses lasted until 4 p.m., but people were still lining up when we walked out of Cardozo at 10:20. Both of my girls made it to their soccer games on time.

I never called to see if my pediatrician ever got more vaccine, but I was curious about Montgomery County. My husband and I would both like to get it when enough is available for stressed-out middle-aged working parents, who, as far as I know, do not represent a priority group.

It would be nice to be immunized before New Year’s Eve, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. According to the health department Web site, Montgomery County has scheduled only two clinics for the entire month of December. The first, on Dec. 2, is to administer a measly 300 doses of nasal spray to children ages 6 months to 35 months. The second, set for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Dec. 20–at last, a Swine-Flu Sunday–is set to vaccinate a breathtaking 5,000 people on a walk-in basis (why the health department is waiting three weeks to distribute 5,000 doses is beyond me).

Some middle-aged people will be allowed to get it, but they’re supposed to have underlying conditions that increase their risk of flu complications. I guess my husband and I could lie and say we have asthma, and I expect many will, but I’d rather see people who need it more than we do get it.

Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci Remained Unable To Locate A Vaccine For His Daughter 

Like Anthony Fauci’s youngest daughter. Yes, that’s Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which has been overseeing clinical trials of the H1N1 vaccine. I interviewed him a week and a half after my daughters got immunized. He congratulated me and mentioned that he’d been unable to locate vaccine for his 17-year-old.

Well, Dr. Fauci, if you’re not swamped with last-minute Christmas shopping Dec. 20, have I got a clinic for you…

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    December 10th, 2009 at 4:21 pm

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