October 14, 2004
A Headache and a Fever: Long Lines for Flu Shots
By PAM BELLUCK
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AVON, Mass., Oct. 13 - Every fall, Catherine DeMayo, a retired nurse,
eagerly helps out at flu clinics around Massachusetts, administering
doses of vaccine to people at pharmacies and grocery stores.
"It's usually such fun," said Ms. DeMayo, 64, who likes the work and the
experience of meeting people.
But this year, flu shots are suddenly a holy grail, with places able to
offer them mobbed by desperate vaccine seekers.
At one pharmacy, there were so many people that Ms. DeMayo and other
nurses kept what was supposed to be a three-hour clinic open for seven.
At another, the store lost electricity in a power failure, but the
nurses kept the injections coming.
And with clinics trying to make sure that the most vulnerable people are
getting the vaccine first, Ms. DeMayo and her colleagues have had to
turn people away: middle-aged men who have wanted a flu shot in an
effort to protect their children from the illness, mothers who want to
keep themselves healthy to care for their families.
"We had a little girl about 3 years old who waited on line for four
hours," Ms. DeMayo said. "She waited all that time, but we don't do
children. The little girl was crying, the mother was very upset."
Another woman was too weak to get out of her car, so Ms. DeMayo went out
to the parking lot to administer the shot. Others try earnestly to
present proof that they are infirm enough to deserve the scarce doses of
"People are so anxious and so fearful," said Kathleen Owens, a nurse
who, with Ms. DeMayo, was giving out flu shots Wednesday at a Costco
store in Avon, 20 miles south of Boston. "You're doing it as fast as you
can, but they're so afraid and that's the hard thing. One woman wanted
to open her shirt to show me her transplant scar. Others say 'I have
papers from my doctor' or 'Here, I have my meds.' ''
When British regulators shut down Chiron Corporation's Liverpool factory
on Oct. 5, citing concerns about bacterial contamination, they cut off
about half the supply of flu vaccine the United States normally
receives, or 46 million to 48 million doses. The other major supplier,
Aventis Pasteur, a French company, is supplying 55.4 million doses this
year, but all but 22.4 million doses have already been distributed.
As a result, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
issued guidelines giving certain groups priority to receive flu
vaccines: infants, people over 65, people with chronic medical
conditions, pregnant women, and health care workers with direct contact
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts public health commissioner, Christine C.
Ferguson, ordered providers to give vaccines only to high-risk groups
and to give an accounting of their flu-shot supplies to the state.
The clamor for shots is so pitched that on Wednesday, the police in
Aurora, Colo., said that 620 doses of vaccine had been stolen from a
pediatrician's office. Health officials around the country say some
suppliers are trying to cash in on the shortage, The Associated Press
reported. In Wichita, Kan., for example, the pharmacy at the Wesley
Medical Center could not get the 2,800 shots it needed from its regular
supplier. But other distributors were prepared to supply the vaccine for
up to $600 for a vial of 10 shots that normally costs about $80.
Many public and private health agencies, unable to get any vaccine at
all, have been forced to cancel scheduled flu clinics. All 14 flu
clinics in Cambridge, Mass., have been canceled because the state cannot
provide the city with the expected 1,300 doses of vaccine, said Ricki
Lacy, Cambridge's director of public health nursing services.
So on Wednesday, when the first two clinics were to be held at a senior
center and a housing complex for the elderly, nurses instead stationed
themselves at the doors, turning away about 60 people who had not heard
that the clinics were canceled.
Jean Campbell, 62, who has emphysema and recently battled pneumonia,
walked to the center from her home, a trip that should have taken 20
minutes but took her 45 because of her breathing problems.
"I'm very angry," Ms. Campbell said, when told the clinic was canceled.
"It's scary. Too many people depend on it."
At the Costco in Avon, scores of people, most of them elderly and some
in wheelchairs or hobbling on canes, had begun lining up hours before
the first shot was to be dispensed at 3 p.m. By 3:25, there were 330
people wanting shots, and the line snaked across the entire back aisle
of the cavernous warehouse store.
Sandra Pedersen, 63, had driven 20 minutes to get there at 1 p.m. with
her husband, Elliot, and her 85-year-old mother, Ida Nisby. She and her
mother had been calling pharmacies and health departments and hospitals
for several days.
"The CVS in East Bridgewater canceled, the town board of health said
they didn't know if they would have it, and Brockton Hospital said maybe
on Nov. 21, if they get it," Ms. Pedersen said.
Concerned that she might be turned away because she was under 65, Ms.
Pedersen arrived with a stack of appointment cards from her doctor,
showing that every three weeks she is treated with B-12 shots for an
immune deficiency. The store had said it would vaccinate only Costco
members, but Ms. Pedersen, who is not a member, was relieved that
neither the store nor the nurses were asking to see membership cards.
Perched at a table against a row of jumbo packages of tampons and adult
diapers, Ms. DeMayo did a subtle double take when Nadia Brupbacher, 23,
took a seat at her table. But she soon noticed what Ms. Brupbacher's
mother, Fatiha, described as her daughter's "developmentally delayed"
"If she doesn't get it, she almost dies," the mother said. "She gets
really sick in the winter."
Anne Bregoli, another nurse giving shots, was trying for some levity.
"You're not pregnant today, are you?" she asked Edward A. Loiacono, who
has emphysema and bronchitis and waited three hours to be 10th in line.
"We pretty much have to rely on the person to be honest about their
condition," Ms. Bregoli said. "We're not the flu police."
Allan Hirschel, 74, traveled from Hull, about an hour away, and thrust
his heart medication, Metoprolol, under Ms. Bregoli's nose.
"Well, I hope that guarantees you a healthy winter," she said after
giving Mr. Hirschel his shot.
Costco dispensed all 502 doses of vaccine it had received, said Dan
Gordon, the store manager.
"We had to tell some people that we didn't have any more," Mr. Gordon
said. "We started letting them know at the door. We could have been here
Katie Zezima contributed reporting for this article.