A little over a month ago, as the second wave of the great H1N1 hysteria of 2009 began to swell, it seemed like vaccines would be made available to any New Yorker who’d decided he would rather not gamble on contracting the feverish, vomit-inducing, kinda-maybe-sorta-lethal porcine plague.
Things didn’t work out that way.
Shots are in short supply, and children are getting special permission to cut to the front of the line. But moms and dads of means are nevertheless being turned away from their pricey, thoroughly-researched, cream of the crop pediatricians.
“I get literally dozens of calls every day and I have a list of over 100 people waiting for me to call them back. I’m extremely frustrated,” said Dr. Ronald Primas, a boutique Fifth Avenue physician who treats the city’s rich and famous at his practice overlooking Central Park.
“My kids haven’t even gotten it yet,” he said, adding that at least two of his well-connected patients, determined to get their families inoculated one way or another, somehow managed to obtain the vaccine without his help. “I asked them, ‘Hey, can you get me some?’”
Global Pediatrics on the Upper East Side quickly ran out of the 500 vaccine doses it received earlier this month, and the office has been catching grief from angry parents ever since. “It’s a nightmare. I can’t even tell you!” said Joyce Schneider, practice manager. “People have been abusive to our entire staff, threatening to leave our practice and go somewhere else.We have phones ringing all day long. Some people will call every day, twice a day.”
The chaos was also palpable in the downtown offices of Tribeca Pediatrics, home of the famed pediatrician Michel Cohen.
“We’re having a swine flu vaccination clinic on Saturday but it’s already filled up so I have to send an e-mail blast out to parents right now,” said a frenzied office manager who answered the phone. “I’ll call you back!” (She never did.)
There is at least one alternative to trying to get vaccinated through the family practice or some other private channel.
The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been hosting a series of free citywide vaccination clinics for anyone between the ages of 4 and 24, and adults ages 25 to 64 who have “underlying” health conditions. In fact, “It’s an honor system,” said Jessica Scaperotti, a health department spokeswoman, which means that technically, anyone could show up, say they have asthma and get a syringe stuck in their arm.
On the weekend of Nov. 14, hundreds of parents showed up for a clinic held at P.S. 290 on 82nd Street and Second Avenue. (6,000 New Yorkers total were vaccinated there on Saturday and Sunday; versus a total of 2,900 at the next busiest site in Corona, Queens, and 1,010 at the least trafficked site in Bushwick, according to the health department.)
The scene was swamped but orderly: reminiscent, some said, of the polio vaccinations of the 1960s. Health department staff wearing mesh neon vests directed the waiting masses one by one to vaccination stations set up throughout the room—long folding tables covered in cotton balls, tissues, ointments, vinyl gloves and pink plastic biohazard containers filled with disposable needles.
“When I first walked in, I was a little taken aback,” said Lori Paige, a pharmaceutical industry media consultant dressed in a Burberry check cap and matching galoshes. She was sitting next to her newly-vaccinated 12-year-old daughter, Hannah, who was wearing a red Montauk sweatshirt.
“Most of my friends would prefer to go to their pediatrician’s office, because it is a more upscale neighborhood, so it’s not a question of money or being able to afford the vaccine,” Ms. Paige continued, as her daughter fiddled with a cell phone.
“I just texted my friend and told him,” (that she got the vaccine), said young Hannah.
Sitting nearby was Marlene Stimell, an attorney whose 17-year-old son had just gone under the needle. “It’s a little weird, I guess; having a stranger put a shot in your arm,” she said.
Back at Global Pediatrics, Ms. Schneider had been advising local families to take advantage of the clinic, but some people would tell her, “I don’t want to go there; I want to go to my doctor’s office!” she said. “This is where they feel safe, where they know who’s giving it. They feel there’s more accountability here.”
As for Dr. Primas, of Fifth Avenue, for now he can only throw up his hands. “My V.I.P. patients, they get very upset because they feel powerless, and these are people who are always empowered,” he said. “For the wealthy, to feel powerless is not good.”