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Drive up, idle, and get a shot

Motorists offered flu vaccinations

In a new twist on drive-through convenience, patients at Caritas Norwood Hospital next week can get a flu shot while idling in their cars, much like they would pick up a coffee or a burger at a fast-food window. State officials say it may be the first such offering in the state.

The aim of the drive-through clinics, which are being tried in other parts of the country, is to increase immunization against the flu at a time when public officials say far too few people bother getting a shot. The service is expected to be a boon for elderly who have difficulty walking, mothers with children strapped into car seats, or simply harried commuters on the run.

"All you have to do is put your vehicle in park, roll down the window, and roll up your sleeve," said Wanda Carey, infection control manager at Caritas Norwood, of the planned one-day event Nov. 6. She first learned about the drive-through clin ics at a professional conference last year.

The idea is an extension of a decade-long movement to make flu shots more accessible by providing doses in workplaces, drugstores, supermarkets, and town halls. About 36,000 people a year in the United States die due to complications from the flu.

Some states, including Arkansas and Washington, have found the drive-through clinics so convenient and orderly that policymakers are considering them as a way to immunize the public in the event of a flu pandemic. Giving a shot to people while they are in their vehicle could decrease their exposure to potentially infected individuals who may show up at a clinic in a gymnasium or civic center, some public officials argue.

But other healthcare workers question whether such an approach might create lines of traffic, reminiscent of the long backups at gas pumps during the 1970s energy crisis.

To avoid traffic jams outside Caritas Norwood Hospital, which is on busy Washington Street, officials are asking patients to sign up in advance. While patients won't be assigned a specific time for their shot, the preregistration, which is not required, is intended to help the hospital adequately staff the event so cars move through swiftly.

The visit, from start to finish without traffic, should take roughly 20 minutes. Children will not be immunized because they are given shots in smaller doses in two visits.

"It doesn't take long to give an injection," she said. "The thing that takes the most time is paperwork."

Mark Pasternack, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the drive-through flu clinic sounds like "another potentially novel way to make flu shots easier to come by."

"Any creative solution is generally welcomed by physicians," he said. "Anything that takes 36,000 lives a year is a major health problem."

Donna Rheaume, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health, said the department applauds any effort to make flu vaccines accessible so long as clinical guidelines are followed. The state has ordered more than 700,000 doses of vaccine for this year, more than previous years, she said.

"I don't know of any drive-throughs in Massachusetts," Rheaume said. "But we are aware of some in other states."

Some Boston hospitals, though, doubt that drive-through clinics could work in cities, writing them off as a suburban/rural phenomenon.

"There is such a traffic problem already," said Sharon Wright, director of infection control and hospital epidemiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in the heavily congested Longwood medical area. "Most Boston hospitals don't have enough space for parking or even valet parking."

But she added, "It's an interesting idea. Every hospital tries to think of things to do to get patients in for a flu shot."

Bridgton Hospital in western Maine has been holding drive-through flu clinics for four years. The hospital usually holds the clinic the same day as an early bird holiday shopping event downtown, although one year the hospital held it on the opening of hunting season. The event draws about 300 people, up from an initial 200.

"It's one of those things that clicked with our community," said Pam Smith, director of development and community relations for Bridgton Hospital. "The convenience is really a big thing."

At Caritas Norwood Hospital, drivers will pass through four stations. At the first, a security guard will direct drivers to the second, where health workers will ask drivers and passengers to fill out forms, and collect a $20 fee per shot (unless a person qualifies for Medicare). They will also assess whether individuals should receive a shot. Allergies to eggs and latex are the most common reasons for rejections, as well as having a fever.

At the next station, underneath the hospital canopy, nurses will be standing on both the driver and passenger sides of a vehicle so the doses can be given quickly. Nurses will follow the same procedures they do inside, such as wearing gloves and swabbing a patient's forearm with alcohol.

But Carey stressed one other safety precaution: "Putting the vehicle in park is important. We don't want to give a shot and have the patient jump and hit the gas pedal by mistake."

At the final station, workers will give out cookies and brochures about hospital programs. The goal of the last station is to keep patients in the parking lot long enough to ensure no one is having a reaction to the vaccine, such as anaphylactic shock, a rare occurrence, Carey said.

The Caritas Norwood Hospital drive-through clinic will be held from 3 to 7 p.m. Nov. 6. To register, call 800-488-5959, ext. 49. $20 per vaccination. Only Medicare and Medicare Replacement insurances will be billed for qualified individuals.

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