New York Clinics See Few Crowds for Free Vaccine


Published: November 8, 2009

empty clinic

Perhaps it was fear of crowds that kept the crowds away on Sunday from the clinics offering free swine flu vaccinations to schoolchildren. Or, maybe, as some of the few who did show up suggested, the small numbers could be attributed to wariness about the new vaccine or a lack of knowledge about the clinics.

Whatever the reason, the seven clinics across the city were, depending on how you looked at it, puzzlingly underused or puzzlingly overprepared.

While the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, said the clinics had the staff and enough vaccine to accommodate about 500 middle- and high-school students per clinic per hour — or as many as 31,500 vaccinations a day — a department spokeswoman put the total vaccinations administered on Saturday at 1,701.

So on Sunday, the clinics, operating out of public schools in all five boroughs, began offering the vaccine to pregnant women and increased the age limit for others to 24 from high school age. Still, the turnout was low: 1,749.

“It was very hard to predict how many people would be coming,” Dr. Farley said in an interview on Sunday. “We did a telephone survey, and about 50 percent said they were interested in getting the swine flu vaccine for themselves or their child.

“We are also providing vaccines in the city’s elementary schools, and we’ve gotten about 23 percent of the consent forms returned. So we had those two numbers to work with. If we’d had 23 percent of the children in the city’s middle and high schools come, we’d have had very full clinics, indeed.”

What the department had instead were large rooms that were mostly empty.

The clinics will be operating in various schools over five weekends. The Manhattan clinic this past weekend was at Marta Valle Secondary School on the Lower East Side. Mahmoud Ali, who took his daughter, Abida, 14, there, said he was “very surprised. I saw only one other child in there besides my daughter.

“There were many nurses in there, many, many tables,” he said. “I’m calling friends now to tell them to bring their children.”

Outside a side door at the school, on Stanton and Norfolk Streets, eight health department workers wore optic-yellow vests — including a man with a sign taped to his back that bore the title “Flow Manager.” There were rows of police barricades set up to impose order on the people waiting to enter.

Outside the school, at any given moment, two or three children — or sometimes one, or even none — were filling out registration forms.

The age limit posted on a health department sign on a fence nearby had been amended with paper and tape: “This vaccination center is for students 4 to 24 years old who attend elementary, middle or high school.”

The health department said the clinic had received 333 people on Saturday and the same number on Sunday.

Dr. Jane R. Zucker, the assistant commissioner of the city’s Bureau of Immunization, said each clinic was staffed to provide around 30 doses at a time.

Nancie Steinberg, who brought her 11-year-old son, Austen, to be vaccinated, said she, too, had been prepared for a mob scene. “We live on the Upper East Side, so the health department Web site has you put in your ZIP code and recommended we wait until next weekend and go to Public School 290 on East 82nd,” she said. “I thought, ‘Zoo.’ Because, you know, all the superconscientious parents on the Upper East. I decided to come down here.”

Ms. Steinberg said she had tried to have her younger son, Alistair, 3, vaccinated by his pediatrician, but was told that the doctor’s office had run out of the vaccine. She looked around the interior courtyard, where police officers were stationed in groups of two and three.

“I guess the police are here for crowd control, which is funny,” she said. “Maybe people will start to come next weekend when they hear it’s safe, it’s clean, there’s nothing to worry about with a free clinic.”

Rachel Cooper and Marina Manheimer, recent New York University graduates, said they had just emerged from lunch around the corner when they saw a flier about the vaccines.

“We’re 22, and my parents just cut me off: ‘You’re paying for your flu shot yourself,’ ” Ms. Cooper said. “And then, look: H1N1 shots for people out of college. It took five minutes. There have been a lot of free things today.”

Ms. Manheimer said: “They gave us free dessert at lunch, because the owner’s Israeli and I have this Hebrew University sweatshirt on. It’s pretty good, considering we’ve only been outside for, like, two minutes today.”

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