how to get a flu shot in New York

outside Chelsea Health Center, Tuesday, 7:45 am

[if you're only interested in the logistics, go straight to the bold area within the text below]

I'm not going to go into the political, social, even moral issues surrounding the disastrous loss of half of the nation's supply of influenza vaccine this year. I'm not going to write about what the ensuing chaos in the distribution of the remaining supply says for the competence or resolution of our local, state and federal authorities. And I won't even allude to the implications this mess has for our ability to deal with the major terrorist biological strike those same authorities have been warning us about for at least three years.

I'm only going to describe how I got a flu shot yesterday morning, in the hopes that the story will help others to duplicate my success.

Although I'm not 65 years old, I happen to fall within at least three so-called risk groups for getting a serious case of influenza. Even before those numbers had added up, I had been innoculated every year.

This year as usual, for many weeks beginning late summer, I had trusted in the ability of my primary care doctor, a specialist in HIV disease, to secure a vaccine virtually all of his patients really depend upon each year. The office assured me several times that it was only the usual delay that was postponing my shot. I suspected otherwise, but I did not think any other source would be more reliable than my own physician. When my last call to the office, made the week before this one, produced a flat confession that they would not be getting any supples and (more shocking) that they could not direct me anywhere else, I was left totally to my own devices. By this time the possibilities were of course extremely limited, since the national panic had already begun.

I called every local governmental, institutional and private office I could think of, but every lead came up empty (most of them actually only directing me to each other). My worst experiences (for incompetence) were with the New York's 311 operators and the recordings and individuals answering the phones at the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. One hotline person said there was nothing in my zip code area, suggested I give him another one, and when I suggested rather that he give me one, I was asked, "How about New York, New York?"

Council Member Chistine Quinn's office showed some real interest in my search when I called on Monday, and they had in fact already been trying, thus far without much success, to assemble practical information for those who needed it. Many reports had said that the Chelsea Health Center was giving innoculations, but no one was able to describe the circumstances. Quinn's office promised to continue its investigation and suggested that I stop by the center, which was only five blocks from our apartment. I walked over early that afternoon where I got the information which got me back at their doorstep the next day before dawn.

It was pretty dark. I had forgotten that there even were such hours as those crowded around 6:30 am. The night doorman was still on duty, which seemed to surprise me, perhaps because I wasn't really very much together yet, this being mathematically the middle hour of my usual sleep assignment. A few feet further down the block I smiled to the nice South Asian fruit and vegetable guy as he assembled his display on the sidewalk (he's regularly still at his stand until early evening - his kids will probably end up at Columbia or NYU). The guy who runs the corner newstand was still assembling his display, and inside the doorway of the still locked Gristede's across the street were big bags of fresh crusty bread, apparently at no risk of being snatched away before they were liberated by store staff.

I decided I really like dawn - and the thereafter. But there would still be that problem with getting to bed eight hours earlier, so I'm not likely to rearrange things so long as I live in Manhattan.

I got to the neatly-landscaped art deco Health Center building (west side of 9th Avenue, just below 27th Street) at 6:45. I had been advised the day before to be there by 7 am, to be among the 350 people who would be given shots that day. I was out by 10:30, having drawn number 126 when they distributed the cards which assigned the order to the people lined outside the building.


Shots are available at seven clinics in the city, but I can only describe the specifics of my own experience. At the Chelsea clinic 350 shots are allocated each Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday (I don't know how finite the total supply may be).

Access to rest rooms is available in the building, although I'm not sure at what time that first becomes possible. There is an elevator to their basement location. Bottled water is occasionally distributed to those waiting, and there is a drink vending machine inside.

I did not see any neighborhood address requirement being invoked, although it may be necessary to be a resident of New York City to receive an innoculation. Only those who are most at risk are being given shots, and some evidence of risk status is being required. That could mean a drivers license or Medicare card for proof of age 65 or above, a doctor's certificate describing an immune suppression (including those with HIV disease), or conditions like heart disease, lung problems and asthma, diabetes, kidney disease, treatment for cancer, high doses of steroids, and sickle cell anemia. I saw some people accepted who were only able to produce (easily identified) prescription items. I did not see any babies.

Around 8 o'clock you are given a number corresponding to your position in line and you are then free to leave for a while or take shelter sitting with your very interesting neighbors inside one of the city buses parked at the curb. Shots will be distributed beginning at 8:30, at the rate of approximately 100 per hour, so you will have a good idea of when you should be back in line.

Once your number is called there is an efficient screening interview and then the vaccine is delivered in your upper arm.

ADDENDUM: If you're looking for a neat little spot close by for a snack or a coffee, head for Lunch Basket on the north side of 24th Street, just west of 9th Avenue. Owner-crafted light food, very cozy, with a few chairs.

Remarkably, especially for those who know me well, I found the entire experience to be totally stress-free. There were no snags, no uncomfortable incidents. Most of the people I was surrounded by were older than myself, and there was certainly a strong element of crusty Lefty veterans of urban campaigns. But overall, there was an amazing diversity, camaraderie and just plain good will and caregiving (a number of people had canes, walkers, wheel chairs, folding seats of every description, and accompanying one elderly couple seen inside the building was a large oxygen tank which served the very sprightly and beautiful wife).

Everything was very orderly, with absolutely no confusion. The clinic staff was efficient, but they were also magnificently considerate, informative and charming. Everyone, patients and employees or volunteers, seemed to delight in a gentle comic humor as well.

But the fact remains, none of those people should have had to leave their homes in the night and wait outside in the cold in order to get a simple flu vaccine in the first place. We should do better, at least as well as the rest of the developed world does for its citizens, but I doubt that we ever will. It's all about the god of the free market, a false and indifferent god, but it's our very own.

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Published on October 27, 2004 12:36 PM.

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