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Flu season already? North Oakland’s pharmacies get their shots in

on September 20, 2009

Walk into the Walgreens at 30th Street and Telegraph and it will not take long to realize that this is a pharmacy on a mission.  Every two minutes, a peppy voice cajoles customers into making the most of the 10-til-4 daily seasonal flu shot available at all stores, nationwide. Outside, signs remind customers that the flu jab costs just $24.99. Inside, they’re immediately informed that both Medicare and Medical can foot the bill, and on a recent weekday afternoon a line had built up at the pharmacy counter as a steady stream of customers waited to get their flu shot nearly a month earlier than last year.

“Most people say they’re doing it for themselves or their family,” said Gregory Tertes, the doctor calmly implementing this Walgreen’s seasonal flu shot program. Tertes was taking less than five seconds to swab a patient’s arm with antiseptic, inject the clear liquid under the skin, and hand over a heart-shaped sticker on which he had written the reason people gave for getting the seasonal flu vaccine.

Yesterday he vaccinated 27 patients against the three historic strains of seasonal flu, given before the beginning of flu season every year. He’s on his way to completing another 27 today.

With the help of translation from a couple’s grandson, he reminded two elderly Vietnamese customers that the single seasonal flu vaccine they were receiving today was not the same as the much-publicized H1N1 or swine flu vaccine, expected out in October.

The scene in Walgreen’s is a magnified version of the preparation and anxiety of health-workers, pharmacies and governments across the world, as they get ready for what is predicted to be a bumper flu season this year. The season is made complicated by the high number of cases of H1N1 already spreading across the country and expected to rise in the coming months.  The government is planning on rolling out vaccine programs to minimize the spread of both the H1N1 and seasonal flu this winter.

The shot the Walgreen’s customers received today was the single vaccine designed to inoculate against three of the historic strains of seasonal flu. Every year pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses are particularly encouraged to get this vaccine, although it is recommended for everyone. Symptoms of the flu include a fever, coughs, sore throat and headaches, though the particular strain varies slightly from year to year.

The H1N1 virus produces similar symptoms and is treated almost identically with bed-rest and flu medication. The vaccine against H1N1, however, is still in medical trials. It is expected to involve either a single shot for adults, or two shots, spaced two or three weeks apart, for children. So far, the Food and Drugs Administration has approved only four manufacturers to produce the vaccine, so it will take some time before there are large enough quantities to reach everyone.

As of September 12, Alameda County had reported 137 cases of H1N1, of which 14 people died and 51 were treated in intensive care units. Nationwide, the Center for Disease Control says that 39 percent of those killed by H1N1 have been people aged 25 to 40 years old. This is different from regular influenza, which hits older people, pregnant women and those with chronic diseases hardest.

“H1N1 is not choosy; young or old, healthy or sick, spring or winter,” said Vanessa Cordova, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Department of Public Health. “It is a new strain of virus that nobody has immunity to.”

Cordova said the virus had hit two groups particularly hard: young adults in their early to late twenties, and those over 50, especially with chronic diseases.

Dr Tertes said that because of the high chances of getting either seasonal flu or H1N1 this year, it was particularly important — even for those who normally abstain from flu shots — to look to getting vaccinated against both this year.

“We are recommending that every American is vaccinated against both seasonal flu and H1N1,” Cordova said. “We are adamant that we will make the vaccine available to everyone, including anyone who falls outside of the traditional health care model. The fact that the federal government is making this free for all should be seen as a measure of how seriously we are taking this.”

The H1N1 vaccine is expected to be available at private and public clinics as well as store-clinics, like CVS and Walgreens throughout Oakland, but the federal government has not yet decided who will be authorized to distribute the vaccine and how it will be rolled out across the country.

The Alameda County Department of Public Health has ordered a total of 200,000 shots of the H1N1 vaccine. The vaccinations will be provided free to anyone who visits the department’s community health clinics, some time in October, with the hope that even those without insurance will be able to access the vaccine.


Khanh Ma receives a flu shot at Walgreens

The Alameda County vaccination program will begin with 30,000 shots in Oakland, Hayward and Fremont, although the exact date is not yet clear, Cordova said. The vaccine will then be distributed at community clinics close to transportation. County public health department officials are still waiting to hear exactly who will be prioritized for this scarcer H1N1 vaccine and the first round of vaccinations. Groups more at risk include those caring for young children, children between 1 and 4, pregnant women, health care workers and those with chronic illnesses, said Cordova.

Despite the oft-repeated advice that everyone receive seasonal flu shots annually, those waiting in Walgreen’s were fairly typical patients: pregnant women and older people, like 66-year old Peter Rosmarin, whose red heart sticker declared he was receiving a flu shot “for God and country.” Other people’s reasons were less patriotic.

“Nobody else in my family gets the shot, so I figure somebody’s got to be healthy,” said 54-year old Marina Porter as she cradled her arm and waited the compulsory 15 minutes after her shot to ensure that she had no side affects. She said she will not be getting the H1N1 vaccine.

“It’s brand new,” she said. “There always seems to be trouble with the first couple of times they try new vaccines. I won’t get it.”

Others, like 65-year-old Bruce Somers, said they were just confused by the idea of two shots. “I don’t know where to get it or anything about it,” he said.

CVS pharmacy stores have not yet begun their seasonal flu clinics in Oakland, but will do so sometime in October, said CVS spokesperson Mikey Angeles. In other parts of the country where the flu clinics began inoculating almost a month earlier than usual, “stores are already reporting increased traffic,” Angeles said.

The cost of a shot at CVS will be $30, and will be offered at 9,000 in-store in-store flu clinics this year, an increase of 1,500 from their program last year, Angeles said.  This includes their eight Oakland stores, he said, such as the big CVS at Broadway and Pleasant Valley, in what used to be the Long’s building. Nationally, CVS will also be giving away 100,000 free shots to unemployed job seekers, who market research indicates less likely than the general public to get a flu shot, he said.  But Angeles added that it has yet been decided whether Oakland will be included in this plan.

Jessica Mcintish receives a seasonal flu shot "for her baby" September 18

Jessica Mcintosh receives a seasonal flu shot “for my baby.”

Back at Walgreen’s, first-time mother Jessica Mcintosh was about to receive her first ever flu shot. She had been waiting for a half hour.   She watched the two patients before her choose which arm they wanted the needle injected into, and then looked at Tertes, who was bent over his instruments. He asked her why she was getting a shot today.

“For my baby,” she said, looking down at the rise of her stomach beneath her bright red pullover. “Normally I don’t get one.”

The doctor filled in her heart sticker and then asked her to roll up her sleeve, tapped the syringe in the air and with the deftness of a true craftsman had injected the vaccine before Mcintosh had finished scrunching up her face in a grimace.

“Yes, I’ll definitely get the swine flu shot,” she said. “You just can’t take any chances.”


Links for more information:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

Alameda County Department of Public Health:

CVS search tool for finding flu shot times and locations:

Walgreens store and swine flu information:

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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