My son is home from college, so my wife sends me with him to get the H1N1 shot. She says I need the shot, too, because I have a chronic health condition. She drives us to the designated location for this Saturday, our local community college.
Traffic slows before we get onto the campus. Cars by the dozens share our destination. We want to arrive 30 minutes early so we’ll be among the first to get our shots when they open the doors.
Now we’re on campus, still in the car. A large white van with antennas sits in the parking lot. I count about a dozen police officers and one sheriff’s deputy – and this is just what I can see from where we are at the moment. The sheriff and fire department EMS are also present.
My son and I get out of the car and start walking to the back of the line. On the way I hear someone say that when we get to the back someone from the Health Department will give us tickets. People who come after the tickets run out will not be able to get the shot. It’s a neat system and is needed because before the ticket system a lot of people were breaking into line and there was a lot of tension and worse.
People have brought lawn chairs and blankets. We pass moms and dads with kids, moms alone with kids, dads alone with kids, grandparents with kids and aunts and uncles with kids. Kids in this case includes teenagers. We pass others in the “initial target groups,” which also includes people aged 25 to 64 who have a chronic health condition. We pass people who are way over 64 and are not accompanied by kids. This scene is playing out all across America and the rest of the world. We’ve all seen the photos.
There are thousands of illegal immigrants in our county, but we see very few who might be in that category standing in line. Where are all the others? Are they coming on a different day? Are they coming at all? Did they have a meeting and decide not to all show up at once because they would draw too much attention to themselves? The people in line who look like they might be illegal immigrants are all parents with small children, just doing what any parent would do. I wonder, as we walk by, if anybody in line actually resents these parents and their kids.
Everybody understands the situation. There’s a shortage of a potentially life saving drug. Only certain categories of people are eligible to get the shot. The County website says “once vaccine supply is sufficient and demand in the initial target groups is met, we will be able to expand our vaccination efforts to those beyond the initial target groups.” Wash hands. Wash hands. Wash hands. Purell. Purell. Purell. Bow, don’t shake? Preposterous.
We walk and continue walking. Finally we are at the back of the line, which is the back of the line only for an instant because hundreds more are still coming. From the sky the long line of people must look like a skinny upside-down letter “U,” with the side where people are facing towards the front being much shorter than the side containing people still walking to the rear.
We enter the line and face forward. A Health Department staffer gives us our tickets. Fifteen minutes later the line begins to advance. We feel good now because the still arriving masses have changed our relative status to “front of the line.” Eventually we are within sight of the entrance doors, maybe 150 feet back. Health Department staff are working the lines, keeping them moving and orderly, answering questions, telling people to have their coats off and be ready for the shot because “it will go fast” once inside the building. Now, every 25 feet or so, there are signs specifying who is eligible to receive the vaccination.
I have a few minutes of mental consternation as we get closer and closer to the door. I’m pretty sure I could just keep going and get the shot. Finally, I take a deep breath and decide. I hail down the next Health Department staffer to come by. I give him my ticket so that somebody else can have it. I secretly wish that I could see the person he will give it to.
I am over the age limit for people with chronic conditions. I am 66. My son continues moving forward and I go to wait outside the door from which he will exit after getting the shot.
This is rationing. It is necessary, assuming that the vaccine shortage can’t be helped. We may have more rationing in the future. I’m not saying it’s bad and I’m not saying it’s good. At least the shot is free.
My wife is going to be very angry with me.
Wash. Wash. Wash. Purell. Purell. Purell. Bow? Still preposterous!
Epilogue: On December 15, 2009, after the county lifted restrictions on who could get the shot, the author got his H1N1 flu shot. It took only one hour and was completely uneventful.