Our Path to Extinction
Very Plain

I Got Mine: A Flu Shot Odyssey

As you may recall, right after the the flu vaccine shortage was declared, I got on the phone to round up shots for myself and my kids; Elizabeth got hers within two hours. I made an arrangement for myself through the county. I called the number the county gave me to sign up for a shot and left a message on their answering machine, giving my name and that I wanted a flu shot etc. I called a couple of times and never got a live human being. No one called me back.

So October 12th rolled around. The flu shot clinic was scheduled for 1 to 3 PM. My doctor's office had still not faxed me the note stating that I was high risk and needed the shot; the county required such note as documentation in order for me to get a shot, since I am not even close to 65. I called the office at 10 AM and was told the doctor would write the note as soon as he was done with the current patient. At 12:45, when I left to pick up my daughter, no fax had arrived. When I returned home at 1:15, there was still no fax, so I tried to call the doctor's office and got only their machine saying that they were in the office but were currently unable to answer the phone. The message said if it was a medical emergency, I could hold for the answering service. This went on for 15 minutes as I called repeatedly trying to get through. I decided to go there in person, since I was running out of time.

I am a much pushier person than I was when I moved to New York 20 years old. The old Kathryn, fresh from Seattle, would not have gone to the office and demanded the note. But there I was, in my doctor's office. The note had not yet been written because he couldn't remember why I needed a flu shot. I refreshed his memory; the note was written, and by a little before two, I was on my way to look for the clinic.

I had never heard of the Fox Center, the place the shots were to be given. So, before I left the house, I called the Mt. Kisco town offices for directions. You would think they would be able to give me the exact street address of their Senior Center, but all I got were some bad directions (as best I can figure out I was given two sets of incomplete directions) and a street name but no street address. I consulted Mapquest before leaving home, so I thought I'd be OK. Well.

I drove up and down what I thought was the entirety of Carpenter Street and could not see anything that looked like a Senior Center. It seemed to be a short street, so I parked my car, put sleeping Elizabeth in the stroller, and set out to find it on foot. I asked one person after another where the place was and got any number of sets of wrong directions. I even asked the oldest most wrinkled-up woman I could find. And she didn't know where the place was. At a certain point, I began to feel that this was all so absurd that a camera crew ought to be following me around through this odyssey. It would have made good television.

Eventually, I figured out that there was more to the street -- it took a 90 degree turn at the place where its name seemed to change. Then I began asking again and found someone who actually knew where it was. I went back and got the car and drove there. It turned out to be in the middle of a subsidized housing development. There was a reason no one I'd asked knew where it was: I was asking the wrong class. None of them ever went to that part of town. (Westchester town planners tend to put poor people in parts of town that are hard to find.)

Since it was after 2:30 when I arrived, I was worried that they might have run out of vaccine by the time I arrived and was prepared for the possibility of not getting a shot. The scene when I arrived at the Senior Center was a bit of a shock: an irritable short brown-haired woman from the county health department was yelling at a crowd of old people telling them to sit down and wait until their names were called. It took me a few minutes to process this scene properly. Yes, the woman was irritable, but I think she was yelling because many senior citizens are hard of hearing. I wasn't on the official list of those signed up (apparently, I'd needed to reach a live human at the phone number I'd been given); neither were a lot of other people in the room. We needed to fill out our forms and wait to find out if there were no-shows, in which case we would get our shots.

I waited around for about twenty minutes while this sorted itself out taking in the scene. I watched a group of the elderly arguing with a nurse from the county about whether they needed to pay $15 to get their shots. They felt the county should bill their insurance companies or medicare or some such. The nurse explained repeatedly that if they did not pay the $15, then they could not get their shots. At one point, I had my hand opn my check book and was going to volunteer to write a check for someone, but the negotiation concluded and the man paid his money and went to get his shot. I don't know if anyone was ulimately declined a shot because of inability to pay, but in a situation of shortage and rationing of flu vaccines, it seemed to me that the county health department should have had a better solution at hand.

It turned out that there was an abundance of no-shows (maybe people who couldn't find the place?) and so all of those whose names did not appear on the list got our shots shortly before 3 PM.

So I got mine, and I didn't have to stand in line for 6 hours like the people I've been reading about in the newspaper. But this was in no small measure due to my persistence and stamina. If I had been in the kind of shape I was in the winter of 2001-2002, I would not have been able to get my shot. Or if I had been 90 years old and too dotty to remember my checkbook. Or. Or. Or. It was not a reassuring experience. Why did that flu vaccination clinic have so many no-shows? I doubt it was because people got their shots elsewhere. How many of those people will be able to make other arrangements? How many of them will get the flu?