Drive-through flu queue

Howard County dispenses vaccine while preparing for an emergency

October 16, 2006|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun Reporter

Jessica Beinstock drove her minivan up to the drive-through and rolled down her window - but not for hamburgers.

"Two little girls for FluMist," she said to a trio of nurses offering roadside vaccines.

The nurses set to work like a NASCAR pit crew. In less than a minute they had the van's side door open and were squirting flu vaccine in the noses of the two girls in back.

"It feels weird," said 9-year-old Hannah Sheets, Beinstock's older daughter. Her eyes watered from the spray, but neither she nor 6-year-old sister, Miriam Sheets, cried.

The nurses closed the door, and the mother drove away - mission accomplished.

Watching the van depart, one of the nurses joked, "I feel like asking, `Do you want fries with that?'"

Indeed, the drive-through flu clinic yesterday in Columbia did brisk business of the sort even a fast-food restaurant would envy. From 11 a.m. to about 5 p.m., nearly 2,100 people got vaccinations without leaving their cars, according to estimates of Howard County health officials.

In addition to helping people prepare for the flu season, the clinic was a drill, of sorts, designed to prepare county agencies to distribute medications or vaccines in the case of a large-scale medical emergency such as a pandemic influenza outbreak or bioterrorism attack.

"We've held drive-through clinics before for people with mobility problems," said Dr. Penny Borenstein, the county's chief health officer. "The point here is to see if we can bump up the through-put, in case we should ever need to do so."

In past drive-through clinics, about 800 people have been vaccinated at a rate of about 300 an hour, she said.

The clinic marked the beginning of the county's second annual Community Readiness Week. It was held on Columbia Gateway Drive, a loop of road about two-thirds of a mile long that was closed off for the day - except for the customers, who coughed up as much as $20 a dose.

As vaccine seekers made their way around the loop, they stopped at various stations to sign consent forms, pay and get their shot or nasal mist - all without setting foot outside their cars. The process from signing to shots or spray took up to an hour and a half, some of the freshly vaccinated said before driving away.

Every 20th vehicle car received a bonus - an emergency-readiness kit that included flashlights, hand-cranked radios and antibiotic hand wipes.

Traditional flu shots and the FluMist vaccine cost $20 for adults. The FluMist was free for children ages 5 to 11, courtesy of its manufacturer, MedImmune Vaccines Inc.

Borenstein, wearing a vest that read "Incident Commander," ran the event with help from police, fire, public works and emergency management officials. From a command center in the Howard County Health Department in the Columbia Gateway complex, she monitored the flow of traffic on television monitors fed by video cameras at each of the stations.

As different stations backed up throughout the day, Borenstein used hand-held radios to shuffle volunteers around and keep the flow of cars moving steadily.

"This is the perfect exercise for us," said Chief Joseph A. Herr of Howard's Fire and Rescue Services. "Part of the problem is how do we handle large numbers of people."

At the end of the clinic, the county had vaccinated people at rate of about 362 an hour.

"We are very pleased with those numbers," Borenstein said.

chris.emery@baltsun.com

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