My Two-Day Quest to Get My Family the H1N1 Vaccine


I didn't agonize long over whether to immunize my family against swine flu. Earlier this year, I wrote about the flu's deadly effects on pregnant women, and I want to make sure that my family and I didn't contribute to the problem.

If the risks weren't convincing enough, the moans and groans from other mothers whose families have contracted the flu are quite motivating. "Say good-bye to a month of your life," they told me.

Our pediatrician also warned us of very high fevers (up to 106°!) , accompanied by a sore throat and cough. And the news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not promising: The number of confirmed cases is rising.

According to the CDC, my family is a high-risk group—we "qualify" for the shot before others in our community. Not only are we caring for a baby under 6 months of age, but our two other children are under age 5.

So I should have no problem getting the vaccine, right? Not so fast. As it turns out, at least 25 city and county health agencies in California have received less than half of the vaccine doses they ordered, according to the Los Angeles Times. Here's how my hunt for the vaccine went down.

No room at the pediatrician's
So when I heard that the H1N1 vaccine had arrived in our community in California three weeks ago, I clicked my heels and called my pediatrician to make an appointment.

"We won't have it until sometime in November," his office told me.

So I called our urgent care clinic, and they did have some doses. "We can be there in 15 minutes," I said.

"Hurry," said the receptionist.

I pulled the baby from her high chair and loaded my pajama-clad children into the car, driving as fast as the law allowed. The waiting room was jammed, and the receptionist was crying.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," she was telling people. "If you're not a current patient, we can't vaccinate you."

I am a current patient, but my kids are not, and they were only vaccinating children.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry," she said through her tears, returning to the phone.

"Go to hospital across the street," she finally told the assembled group of upset parents. "They have 40,000 doses arriving today. You can get in line after their staff."

We headed there immediately, only to be told that the story was a complete fabrication. "We wish that were true," the hospital operator chuckled when I asked her about it later. "I can't get the vaccine either!"

  • Next Page: Day 2 [ pagebreak ]
  • Day 2
  • The next morning, I learned that another after-hours clinic had the vaccine.

I called them the minute they opened. "We've run out," they told me. "Try the free clinic down by Oakland airport. We heard they have it."

I called the free clinic, and indeed, they were planning to start vaccinating high-risk groups (that's us!) starting at 3 p.m.

I piled all three girls (plus bags of snacks, books, and toys) in the car, sacrificing the baby's nap and praying that we wouldn't contract H1N1 by simply standing in line. It was a 40-minute drive, and I kept the mood light in the car, singing songs, and talking about the ice cream I would give my kids as a reward for bravely getting shots.

I finally found the clinic, tucked behind a construction zone, and grabbed the only parking space. I unsnapped my daughters from their car seats, and we walked in, full of hope and with dreams of ice cream. We were immediately herded into a crowded waiting room, where we were gradually sorted by the clinic staff.

"Are you an uninsured resident of Alameda County?" they asked me.

If I had lied, my kids and I would be vaccinated right now. But despite my great desire to use a friend's address and fib my way into this particular inoculation, I just couldn't. Crestfallen, I held my daughters' hands and slunk from the clinic, feeling ridiculous.

My infant is vulnerable, my 1-year-old is vulnerable, and my 4-year-old is attending a preschool where five students and three teachers have already contracted the regular flu. I can only thank my lucky stars that I'm not pregnant too.

Very few of us who want the vaccine in our community can find it for ourselves and our kids—and that includes my pregnant friends. The doses are arriving very slowly and sporadically, and they are immediately accounted for by other doctors' offices, other health plans, and, apparently, the uninsured residents of Alameda County.

Our pediatrician's office still hasn't received the vaccine, and my family is on a seemingly hopeless H1N1-vaccine waiting list with another clinic.

This weekend, our county is setting up a flu vaccine clinic at a local high school. I'm just hoping I can get the kids out of bed, get their diapers changed, and bundle them against the early morning chill in time to get a spot in line.

And if we do succeed this time? Ice cream for everyone. Then back in line next month for the booster…