We Survived a California Drive-Thru Flu Clinic and Got the H1N1 Vaccine


Spending a Saturday in a windy concert-pavilion parking lot wasn't my first choice, but it was the only chance I had to get the H1N1 vaccine for my family.

Based on the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), California is one of 32 states with widespread H1N1 activity. Our pediatrician backed this up with his own war stories: "I've never seen a flu this severe, or this early in the year, in my entire career." Last week, one of his colleagues lost a 15-year-old patient to H1N1, and it upset my doctor as well. His office advised me, "Get the shots for your family, however you can."

Because the vaccine remains in short supply, the county-sponsored "drive-thru" clinic was limited to high-risk groups, which they defined as: pregnant women, children ages 6 months to 4 years, children ages 5 to 18 with chronic medical conditions, and people who live with or care for infants under 6 months of age. As my infant was due to turn 6 months old in a week, this particular clinic was the last chance at vaccination for my 1-year-old daughter and me.

So my friend Allie and I woke up early in the morning, filled the car with kids, toys, books, and snacks, and headed to a transformed concert venue several hours before the clinic was to begin. With all the bad news surrounding this flu, it was no surprise that we were preceded by several hundred carloads of families. We were directed to a parking space by one of the many volunteers in fluorescent vests (turns out all volunteers got flu shots as part of the deal—smart!).

Thousands of cars continued to stream into the parking lot after our arrival—each with its own story. About one in four carloads was immediately disqualified and sent home.

A grandfather to a newborn pulled in next to us, prepared for a long wait with newspapers and coffee. But once the clinic organizers learned that he wasn't his grandchild's primary caregiver, he was sent home.

His now-empty parking spot gave the kids more room to play—rolling a ball with some of the other kids, drawing on the pavement, exploring the muddy embankments, and watching car after car pull into the two overflow lots nearby.

Finally, as the noon hour approached, it was our turn.

I sweated in my seat, clutching my infant's birth certificate to prove that she was under 6 months, telling myself repeatedly not to get my hopes up—we'd been turned down so many times before, and we had little reason to believe we were really going to get the shot today.

We joined a line of cars that snaked over a hill and down into a receiving area filled with people wearing red vests that said VACCINATOR. To a mother of three small children in this year of global flu pandemic, it was a welcome sight.

Before long, we were ushered down into a row of cars and told to turn off the car and remove the children from their car seats. It was there that they jabbed me with my long-awaited dose of the H1N1 vaccine. The only sweeter moment was when they jabbed my 20-month-old daughter.

"Did that really happen?" I asked Allie. "Did you see the shot go into her leg? I saw some spray into the air! Is she really vaccinated?!" (I learned later that they use needles that may emit a little spray when they retract.)

My daughter is vaccinated, but the sad truth is that she's still not immune to H1N1. Research has shown there's no exact date as to when your immune system will build up enough antibodies against the virus. Studies estimate that it may take anywhere from eight days to two weeks for the vaccine to become effective. In September 2009, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that preliminary data from an Australian trial showed that more than 96% of the 240 trial volunteers ages 18 to 64 generated a "robust immune response," including increased levels of antibodies, just 21 days after getting one shot.

Though that seems promising, according to the CDC's recommendations, my daughter will need another booster shot in four weeks. Unfortunately, there aren't plans for additional clinics, and our pediatrician is only vaccinating babies (he gave our 6-month-old a shot last week) and asthmatics. My oldest daughter was out of town for the clinic, so we are still in pursuit of the initial shot for her and my husband.

But in the meantime, we triumphed at the parking lot clinic, and we have the Band-Aids of Honor to prove it.