One Family’s Epic Quest for a Flu Vaccine

Health and medicine explained.
Jan. 10 2013 3:41 PM

Why Is It So Tough To Get a Flu Vaccine?

Pity the poor slackers come January.

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Which left us dependent on the kindness of MinuteClinic. Despite my survey of waiting patients, it was impossible to calculate whether we would get our shots that day. Cute but crud-eyed children pulled pink metal roadsters off the shelves and zoomed them over the carpet. Store employees took the long way around to avoid us. Adults slouched in the half-dozen chairs available, with surplus people standing up or sitting on the floor, waiting to be called in or called home.

Twenty minutes later, the nurse's door still hadn’t opened. A big woman in tiny suede boots volunteered that she had already been there two hours and was now 11th on the list. When the nurse finally popped out for the next patient, we were told that she could probably see only one or two more people before her break.

It was 12:10. We headed to Wendy's and came back an hour later. Suede boots had moved up two slots in our absence. We sat down, but after a while, I started to worry about our sick, old dog left alone at home. Doing a quick and dirty calculation in my head [30 min. per non flu-shot patient x (4 to 6) patients ahead of us + (4 to 6) flu-shot patients at 15 minutes each], I decided that we surely had 45 minutes to check on the dog and come back.

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We returned by 2:30 to discover that some patients had bailed. We were No. 3! And we only had to wait another hour to see the nurse, who even with a mob lurking outside her door, turned out to be professional and friendly. “You should have seen this place yesterday,” she said.

In the last minutes before her shot, my daughter started climbing on me and begging to go. But by the time the needle came out, it was 3:45—six hours since we had set off that morning—and she was too exhausted to commit to a freakout.

Leaving, I waved to the crowd. "That didn't take long," someone from the appreciative mob said. In the car, my daughter ripped open her new toy.

Now, there’s just one problem left. The nurse was out of adult flu vaccine. So I didn’t get a shot.

The flu generally kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people in a given season, even in non-pandemic years. FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle said Monday that as long as demand doesn’t surge much higher than in previous years, the agency doesn’t expect to see any real vaccine shortages, just occasional gaps. CVS’s Mike DeAngelis says that when temporary shortages occur, he expects stores to be restocked quickly.

Still, hitting the jackpot is a guessing game. Wednesday, I called the six CVS locations that had been out over the weekend, and only two of them had doses on hand.

Uscher-Pines delicately pointed out to me that it’s smarter and easier to get vaccinated in September—and suggested families make it part of a back-to-school routine. For bad parents like me, she helpfully noted this CDC vaccine finder.

So maybe I’ll see you at a local clinic. But given my weekend, you’d better call ahead. And pack a lunch.

Andrea Pitzer is a journalist, painter, and author of the forthcoming book The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov. She once stopped a runaway bus from crashing, but it was going very slowly.

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