Anyone who has been trying to get a flu shot for their kids this season will enjoy Anna Solomon's piece today. Swine flu, seasonal flu, and the mini spin-off plagues of colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia have already taken a firm hold on schools here in New York. Yet it is impossible to get our kids vaccinated. Anna does a great job of describing the frustration and the fear that many parents have been feeling. She also reminds us how unusual this situation feels in our well-stocked 21st-century society.
I kept meaning to schedule my daughter’s flu vaccine. I kept meaning to do it, then failing to, perhaps because I tend to think of myself and my kin as resistant to such public, popular problems. Perhaps because I hate shots. Then yesterday, I ran into another mother, who anxiously informed me that she’d set up an appointment for her daughter, only to have the doctor’s office cancel it. They’d run out of vaccine.
"Run out?" she said. "How can they run out."
"Yeah," I said. "They can’t just run out. Is this for the swine flu?"
"No! Just regular seasonal flu!"
I called our pediatrician.
"They told me to go to CVS, or Walgreens, if you can believe it," the mother said. "But they’d run out, too. Can you believe that?"
"I can’t believe that."
My doctor’s office picked up. "Can I help you?"
"I’d like to schedule a flu shot for my daughter," I said. I hadn’t dared asked my true question - do you still have any flu shots? Instead I took the cool approach, the You may say you don’t have any left, but I’m going to pretend that you do, and therefore maybe you will, just for me, approach. But as I waited for the secretary’s answer, I felt suddenly nervous, as though I were engaged in some illicit behavior. Ten minutes before, the flu shot wasn’t on my mind, but now that I knew there was a shortage. Well. It wasn’t possible. I couldn’t let it be.
"Sure," said the secretary. "Let me look at the schedule."
My nerves didn’t settle. They had it! I nodded vigorously at the other mother, whose daughter has asthma. We gave each other the thumbs up.
"How about November 17?"
"Three weeks? Will you even have any left?"
"Yes. We have one nurse who does the shots, and she’s full up until then."
"What about swine flu?" I asked, like it was another flavor. Like many parents, I still wasn't sure whether I even wanted to give my daughter the new vaccine.
"Mid-November," the secretary said.
I had to give her credit for not correcting me, by saying, "H1N1." But I was annoyed, and worried. The last time I’d called with questions about the swine flu vaccine, all they’d said was late October. Now the date change felt like a conspiracy. It was enough to make a person sweat - even a person who is usually resistant to public, popular problems.
"Okay," I said. I scheduled the "regular" flu shot and hung up. The other mother looked relieved. She asked for the doctor's number, then for my full name, as a reference. As if she were applying to get into pre-school. It felt like that. I said, "Good luck!" and sat by, rooting for her.
Then, as I waited with my fingers crossed, it struck me. Our disbelief at the shortage, our near-outrage at the failure to produce, test, and distribute the vaccine effectively, was particularly American in its naivety.It was American in this age of virtual transaction where much of what we consume can be had instantaneously, with almost no awareness of where it’s come from, or how it’s gotten to us.
Click, diapers are delivered at our door. Food. Furniture. The exact red shade of curtains to match our grandmothers’ old tablecloth. If a thing exists we can have it. The notion of manufacturing as a material process - full of actual engineering, and construction, and packaging, full of possible snafus - belongs, in our minds, to automobiles and the twentieth century. Say the word "drug manufacturer," and I think drug lobby. Say "development," I think fundraising. Say the vaccine manufacturers report problems growing the new H1N1 in chicken eggs, I think, why can’t the drug lobby find a way to do it with virtual eggs - or better yet, get a better computer? Why can’t they get a better computer, scan us in, and presto! Inoculation!
All over the country, fear of H1N1 has Americans swarming in unprecedented numbers for the seasonal flu vaccine, even though it doesn’t protect from H1N1. And as the H1NI vaccine makes its debut in a smaller number of schools and clinics, people are standing in line for hours only to be turned away when the supply runs out. Pregnant women, infants, and other high-risk groups are meant to take priority, but as one father waiting on line with his child said, "If they’ll give it to me, I’ll take it." And if they don’t? Will he demand a refund? Will he sue? What are we to do, we who’ve never waited in line for loaves of bread, or been turned away because there isn’t any. (Hell, if we were, we could just order it online.) It’s almost as if, in our dismay, we find ourselves in what seems like another country, or century. Then we discover that we’re right here - waiting for a shot.
The other mother got off the phone. Turned out that my doctor’s office wouldn't give non-patients the shot. And, because of the demand for the vaccines, they wouldn't take any new patients.
"I’m sorry," I said. Her daughter has asthma, and mine does not.
"It’s OK," she said. "I don’t blame them." But she was already calling a third number, from a third mother who’d walked in, to whom I turned and said, "This is crazy. Can you believe it?"
I thought to offer her our appointment - her 4-year-old could go pretend to be my 21-month old. Then, I thought: I want our shot.
Anna Solomon's novel, The Little Bride, is forthcoming. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter. You can read more of her work at annasolomon.com.